Friday, August 31, 2007

The Acid in My Alcohol

Or is it the alcohol in my acid, or the pH of my…. Oh hell, it’s just wine!

I think most folks know that I’m not a fan of the anti-high alcohol league. I’m not completely sure why but for some reason the league stirs in me images of The League of Gentlemen. No, not The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, The League of Gentlemen. There is something about this cadre of criers of “nothing above 14.5%” that casts a grim shadow over my world. It’s akin to the foreboding behind the 'Welcome to Royston Vasey. You'll Never Leave!' sign. I picture myself being locked into a little corner of the wine world with people that, well, just don’t sound like a lot of fun. But I digress.

Dan Berger is one of the biggest critics of big wines and Big Wine lovers. I give Berger credit; he knows he’s in the minority. Still I’m not so naïve as to believe that all wines with alcohol above 14.5% are great wines, or even representative of their style or variety. However I’m also not convinced that delicacy, harmony, and balance is found only below the magical number of 14.5% alcohol. But this is the thesis of folks like Dan Berger, Darrell Corti, Randy Dunn and others. It's just unfortunate that they don’t test their hypotheses. But I’m always willing to help, if I can! One of Berger’s most recent discussions on high alcohol wines made a point that I thought worthy of follow-up.

“Look at it this way: The bigger the wine, the more alcohol it typically contains. And the more alcohol a wine has, the less acidity it usually has. High-alcohol wines need more, not less, acid and a lower pH to balance the “sweet” taste of the alcohol. But with high-alcohol wines, we almost always get a higher pH, not a lower one.”

It seemed just a little limiting to me, given the complexity that goes to generate balance, that Berger should focus on the relationship between alcohol and acidity. Does he know something the rest of us don’t? One way to find out is to look at the alcohol and acidity in several wines. It’s a little difficult to do this with a large number of wines simply because alcohol, pH and total acidity (TA) numbers are hard to find for most wines. But I was able to get some data on three wines: Penfolds Grange (Shiraz) from 1955 to 2002; Penfolds St Henri Shiraz from 1993 to 2003; and Carlisle Dry Creek Zinfandel from 1998 to 2005. Grange and St Henri have yet to pass 14.5% alcohol, while the Carlisle Zinfandel has not been below 15.4%.

Graphing alcohol and TA reveals significant positive correlation for both Grange and the Carlisle. St Henri shows a non-significant correlation, although higher alcohol tends to indicate lower TA values. Graphing alcohol and pH reveals a significant negative correlation for Grange; that is the higher the alcohol the more acidity (lower pH), a positive correlation for St Henri (alcohol and pH values both increase) and no significant correlation for the Carlisle although the acidity tends to increase with increasing alcohol.

So if Dan Berger is correct then poor old St Henri, my favorite wine and one of Australia’s most refined, harmonious and balanced Shiraz wines does not fit his thesis. Or could it be that balance (delicacy and harmony) in a wine is just a little more complex than pH and alcohol?

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