Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Academics to the Rescue

Regular readers will have noticed that I have challenged the anti-high alcohol league to address their concerns with more than just words. After all, members of the Australian wine industry have addressed this issue in a constructive manner, so why not here in the US.

Alcohol levels in wine are increasingly becoming a hot topic in the wine world. Here in the US there is significant use of reverse osmosis (RO) to reduce alcohol levels in wine. However wineries/winemakers are not keen to come out of the closet about their use of the technology. This makes it difficult to find wines that have undergone RO in order to identify any changes that the process may make to a wine beyond removal of alcohol (and apaprently volatile acidity (VA)).

I was therefore quite pleased to find this post on the West Coast Wine Net forum. The 3 year old post provides tasting notes on a Syrah (made by students at Fresno State University in California) that was made with differing levels of alcohol.

Fruit for the experiment was harvested at 31 Brix (the 0.55 multiplier doesn't account for the 18% alcohol) with a 2-day cold-soak, the fermentation ran for 17 days at 55-60 degreesF. Pressed at 1 Brix, the fermentation proceeded to 0.6% rs afore sticking.

..........the wine was sent to Vinovation for reverse osmosis to reduce the alcohol, from the original 18.0% to 12.8%,and everything in between in 0.1% increments. The four "sweet spots" at above alcohols were selected for aging 6 months in American oak. Each lot completed alcoholic fermentation except the original 18.0%, stopping at <0.2%>. Three of the four reduced alcohol lots finished M-L fermentation. Then given a 5 micron filteration and packaged in a slick redwood box.

The final wines were 13.35%, 13.75%, 14.35%, 15.0%, and 18.0% alcohol. And after the tasting the 17 participants rated the 13.35% the worst wine (14 votes) and the 15% the best (8 votes) followed by the 14.35% with 5 votes. One individual favored the 18% wine!

The comments on the tasting, from several individuals, are interesting and worth reading.

One point to note is a comment by Mike Officer (of Carlisle Winery & Vineyards) that it's virtually impossible to get syrah to taste pruney or raisiny. Our syrah last year was around 31 brix as well. Not a trace of overripe character. I'm not sure why syrah behaves like this but might have something to do with phloems cavitating around 22 brix. It's definitely a physiological issue unique to syrah.

I must admit that I don't recall finding overt prune character in Syrah/Shiraz except for the 2004 Massena The Eleventh Hour Shiraz (Barossa Valley).

Any more examples of approaches that have tested whether or not alcohol levels adversely affect wine appreciation?


Arthur said...

I am curious how the Syrah for the experiment was grown. Wine is made in the vineyard in more ways than on. That is why vine spacing, rootstock selection, canopy management and other things done in the vineyard affect the wine to be made. You are manipulating the physiology of the plant to gain a desired result.

Much of what we see today in the vineyard is, in fact, set up for long hangtime and ultra-ripe extraction, and yes, it does verge and sometimes delves into raisin - even in Syrah. Conversely, these vines will give greener wines.

While I believe that those tasting those Syrahs undoubtedly were seeking a big, plush style, I am not surprised that they found the lower alcohol wines green or lean.

You cannot expect to just pick at different levels of must specific gravity when your vines are set up to manipulate the plant's physiology to deliver a riper, bigger style of wine.
I would like that experiment repeated, this time, comparing different vine farming and management approaches.

Arthur said...

Missed the dealcing part. Sorry.
I read too quickly and thought the wines were picked at different levels.

Still, very interesting to see the Tensley style as a reference point. I know this style, and disagree that it represents all of Santa Barbara. Joey describes his style as "soft and feminine". He tends to go for bigger, riper extraction and more demure tannins. Many others in SBC make their wines with much more structure and less alcohol - and thus complexity and greater potential longevity.

It is also telling of what the first taster (TomHill) prefers. I am left with the impression that he was writing his notes from the reference point of what he likes and that tends to be a riper, softer, more extracted and jammier syrah. Still, he says this of the 15% alcohol wine: “a bit more of an overripe character and bit less lush fruit on the nose” and this: “softer/rounder more balanced on the palate; my slight preference over 6”of the 14.35% wine. It is not uncommon for well made (and well GROWN) syrah to reach this level. But those wines are grown (farmed) to not get high alcohols and do not need dealcing. It is important to note that the degree of dealcing was quite big in going form 18% to 13.35%. While 1-2 point changes may have some beneficial effect, a nearly 5 point change just makes the wine fall apart and likely strips down much body, structure and mouthfeel - indicating that those were primarily dependent on the alcohol. TomHill’s own notes support this, when he notes that at 18%, the wine had “still loads of lush Syrah fruit”. Still, interestingly, he notes this wine to have: “slight bit of an overripe character”. Could it be that alcohol levels also enhance certain aroma/flavor characteristics? (you betcha!). There have been taste trials like this done up in Napa, I believe, where they tested different levels of alcohol (I believe Dunn was involved) – which like pH affects the flavors. However the increments of change in alcohol levels were not this big.

The informal tasting (presumably by people who know wine, however partial or impartial they were) gives the following information and nothing more (ready?):

“This specific wine made from specific Syrah grapes grown in a specific single vineyard (managed and farmed in a specific way) in a single, specific year, and harvested at 31 Bx. was most PREFERRED by 8 of 17 people when it had been DEALCED to the 14.3% to 15% range.”

What were the criteria for rating best/worst? Was it typicity? overall composition? balance? perception of heat?
Reading that thread, it seems that tasters looked at the whole picture and composition of the wine. So for that particular wine, harvested at that particular (physiological and sugar) ripeness, alcohol was most balanced when reduced to the 14.5 to 15 % range.

To use this experiment as an argument against the contentions of the “anti high alcohol league” misses the point of what Berger and others are saying. To look at alcohol only is one-dimensional and ignores the other factors that affect a wine’s profile: farming, management and all those things that manipulate a plant’s physiology to achieve a given fruit profile. Furthermore it is not an argument against lowering alcohol levels.

There are these pervasive notions that a low wood-to-fruit or leaf-to-fruit ratios and long hangtimes and low vineyard yields mean quality. That is flashcard viticulture and is very limited and limiting. I have seen great wines made in the central coast that violate many of these now dogmatized notions. Just like the 0.55 conversion ratio from sugar to alcohol. These wines were harvested at 31 Bx, but after soaking, must jumps a point or two in the fermenter, before inoculation. Then there is the fact that must pH affects the conversion ratio – as do yeast strains and growing climate– so it is not uncommon to see a 0.60 conversion ratio. So let’s say the must weight jumped to 32 Bx, they watered back a little with yeasts and nutrients and a little more to avoid stuck fermentation and since these are San Joaquin Valley grapes, we convert at 0.565 and voila: 18.08%.potential alc. by vol. prior to inoculation.

I am glad, Mike, that you are continuing to address this topic, however, I encourage you and others to address the whole spectrum of issues related to producing wines of any particular style.

Michael Pollard said...

Hi Arthur,

I was just preparing a comment on your first post but now that you have seen how the experiment was done there is no need for my initial response. Your interpretation of the value of the study is essentially correct.

However I do have a problem with the following statement. “To use this experiment as an argument against the contentions of the “anti high alcohol league” misses the point of what Berger and others are saying. To look at alcohol only is one-dimensional and ignores the other factors that affect a wine’s profile: farming, management and all those things that manipulate a plant’s physiology to achieve a given fruit profile. Furthermore it is not an argument against lowering alcohol levels.”

The reason why I posted this study was not to argue against the recent contributions of what I call the anti high alcohol league; links were provided to other posts on Shiraz that explore that. What I wanted to show was that there are some in the US who are addressing the topic of alcohol in wine in a constructive manner. Its true that the study by the Fresno State University students only addresses a very narrow aspect of that. But its important to note that the best experimental design requires that only one variable be tested. In this particular case the experiment is not perfect (there are clear modifications I would have liked to have seen made) but as we don’t know the hypothesis being tested its easy to criticize; being a scientist I’m only too aware of the pitfalls of experimental design. I’m not even sure we can criticize the conclusions of Tom Hill and his taste testers without knowing much more about the individuals involved.

With that said, I do believe that it is important to point out that I don’t view the contributions of Berger, Corti, Dunn etc as approaching the constructive effort of the students, or the SIWC, or the Wine Press Club of NSW. None of these organizations have attempted to force their own dogmatic opinions on wine drinkers. Instead they have tried to examine particular aspects (food and wine, alcohol and balance, etc) so that wine drinkers have information that they can use to make informed decisions.


Arthur said...

The problem with experiments dealing with a single variable in a complex system have two obstacles to overcome:
1. The variable studied is interacting with and influenced by the other variables you are not controlling. You know this from your own education and your current research. In vitro vs In vivo.

2. Experiments testing a single variable tell the consumers nothing. More often than not they are misinterpreted by the lay person.

That is why I started project23. I think that by starting at a determined point we can engage in an exploration of what does and does not affect alcohol in a wine vis-a-vis ripeness, etc. By making the starting point a wine people can get their hands on, I hope to create a tangible touch point for readers and others in the wine industry.

Neither I, nor Dan nor those you have grouped into a "league" dogmatize anything nor do we attempt to push anything down anyone's throat (pun intended). Nobody wants to wipe Yellow Tail or Charles Shaw off the store shelves. If that is what the greater majority of the public wants to enjoy, then great. Every product has its market. Dan Berger and others, like me, are contributing to the marketplace of ideas, whether we produce a wine or not. To call us elitist and divisive is also counterproductive. How can people make decisions if they have no choices? How can they know they have choices if nobody tells them?

Michael Pollard said...

Hi Arthur,

Thanks for your continuing contribution. I’d like to address a couple of the points you make.

1. The variable studied is interacting with and influenced by the other variables you are not controlling. You know this from your own education and your current research. In vitro vs In vivo.

While no experimental protocol is ever perfect, most of us try to control for all the variables that are known to us. If the Fresno students had picked grapes from the same vineyard at different Brix to create wines with differing levels of alcohol there would have been far too many variables to derive any sort of conclusions. Their approach was not perfect. We (and others) could pick at it until its just bones, but at least they tried to do something constructive in terms of asking what influence alcohol levels have on wine.

2. Experiments testing a single variable tell the consumers nothing. More often than not they are misinterpreted by the lay person.

As a consumer and student of wine (for over 30 years) I would have loved to have had access to the wines made by the Fresno students. Maybe its the scientist in me but I can see the merit in their study. It would have allowed me to gain some idea of how differing alcohol levels influence my appreciation of (what is essentially the same) wine. I believe the knowledge gained would influence my decisions as a consumer.

Neither I, nor Dan nor those you have grouped into a "league" dogmatize anything nor do we attempt to push anything down anyone's throat (pun intended).

Darrell Corti wrote a memo to his staff, "Wines over the limit for table wines, 14 percent, will no longer be tasted or sold at Corti Brothers. There are no exceptions." If I was a customer of Corti Bros. I believe I would be justified in saying that Darrell Corti was pushing his views down my throat! Darrell Corti’s store claims to “specialize in rare and unique gourmet foods and fine wines”. Does Corti have a program of educating the buying public by showing how the wines he sells match with the foods he sells? Why doesn’t he propose to show his customers how wines of differing alcohol level pair with food? I have a feeling that his store (and he) and his customers would benefit greatly. Alas I think we will wait a long time for that to occur. Fortunately as a drinker of Australian wines I am able to take advantage of the constructive approach that the SIWC takes in examining wine and food pairings.

Randall Dunn wrote The current fad of higher and higher alcohol wines should stop. That seems like a pretty clear cut statement to me. In Dunn’s case his argument has even been perceived as self serving; he doesn’t make wines with alcohol above 14+%. There is clearly a question of a conflict of interest on his part, irrespective of how quickly he may sell out of his wines. In fact, if he is making wines that speak of their place of origin, and he has no problem selling them, then he should feel blessed that he is doing so. But if he does feel so strongly that high alcohol wines do not exhibit terroir why not follow the lead of some other winemakers and use one of his terroir expressing wines as base material and add alcohol to create a series of wines so others can test his hypothesis? I’d bet that those other winemakers (yes, the ones at Fresno State that are pushing the envelope on this question) would love to get involved!

Dan Berger is the worst of all. In attempting to foist his opinion on the wine world he chooses to insult the consumer. A good example is this. That’s because most of them are employed by wineries that have done focus-group research in which consumers are interviewed about their taste preferences. And these companies learn that many consumers appreciate over-ripe wines. My theory as to why this is may be reduced to a single reason: such wines are more like soda pop and less like wine. High alcohols make for a softer, sweeter taste, and thus are the wines anti-complex. They are simple. He makes it very clear. This problem of high alcohol, over ripe wines is all the fault of the simple tastes of the consumer.

Or how about this? Let’s be clear about this: Huge wines now infect the shelves of otherwise blameless merchants because it is clear that a new subset of wine drinkers, otherwise known as the Powerhouse Wine Seekers of America, demand these sorts of wines. (The PWSA is an unofficial club of which almost all newcomers to wine seem to be de facto members.) Oh, wonderful. Let’s tell the newbies just how much they have to answer for. Let’s not try to bring them gently into the fold of wine lovers with some persuasive instruction on what they should be looking for in terms of structure and balance in fine wine. No, let’s just blame them for what we don’t like about the current state of the wine market. As a member of the wine press Berger could do much better. He could do himself no harm and a lot of good by taking a page from the Wine Press Club of NSW.

No! The Cortis, Dunns and Bergers of this world are not doing good things. They don’t wish to share their knowledge in a constructive manner. They wish to lecture us, to reduce our choices of wines, and belittle those they feel are to blame.


Arthur said...


The Cortis are not the only game in town. Nobody forces people through their doors nor does anyone make people buy their products. Every business and enterprise has a mission and philosophy. Over time, both the philosophy and its implementation are adjusted. If you agree with his philosophy and want what he offers, you buy from Corti. If not, you go to someone who offers the product you want.

Randy Dunn’s statement is just that: a statement. It is not law or a fiat. He is not the Pope and is not imposing a standard (not like all Catholics eschew condoms in bed or meat on Fridays). In his own way, he is seeking to impact the diversity of California wine. Your argument of adding ethanol to a finished wine completely misses the crux of what Berger and others are saying. The excessive alcohol is a secondary byproduct. You get high alcohol if you farm a certain way: if you farm/grow grapes to be ultra ripe. Those wines lose not only regions but varietal character. As part and parcel of being ripe, these wines are high in sugar and in potential alcohol. No amount of watering back or RO or whatever will change the fact that the phenols and anthocyanins etc will be at a different (much more ripe) stage of evolution/development and the wine will taste different if it had been grown differently. And they will still taste over-ripe and raisiny.

While it may be unpalatable, what Berger says is the truth. That truth is that the vast majority of the wine buying public will go for simpler, easier to understand wine. Much of this has to do with the role of wine at the American table: it is negligible. I believe you yourself have said that most Americans treat wine as a cocktail. This is true. Why have the appletini if a Coppola Merlot seems more fancy. (and so much of wine is about ambience and the air of elegance). They both have similar levels of alcohol and same intensity of flavors, but the consumer has a different perception of the wine. American foods are far more over the top than European foods in flavor and aroma. That frames the reference point for aroma and flavor preferences.

The fact was illustrated to me some months ago while I was waiting for my meal at a restaurant in Los Olivos. Near me was group of young people from France. They sent bottle after bottle after bottle after bottle back because the wines (all local, all just adored by the critics and the public) were too big, too hot and just too much. Sitting there I was remind of my flight to the US in 1980. I tasted 7 Up for the first time and I remember how intense the aromas and flavors were. They were almost bizarre in their intensity. I was 10 then. I remembered my first taste of BBQ sauce and how that hit me like an 18 wheeler. At the age of 11 I tried spaghetti for the first time (from a can, I convinced my mom to make it). I never had food so intense before. Supposedly, at that age, we are less attuned to the subtle and sublime… hmmm… During my general medicine internship, I remember the nurses slathering their hands with the Victoria’s Secret fruit and flower scented lotions that were so hip then. I could smell the stuff coming around the corner (no, I am not a ‘supertaster’ and I think the notion is overplayed). It smelled awful: synthetic, candied and almost nauseating. No wonder the patients were complaining.

I suppose we could argue for days whether Dan could or could not have phrased his statement better and whether he was or was not lambasting the American wine buying public for having such preferences as they do. However, the fact remains, that our past experiences determine our future perceptions and our subjective realities are ones of contrasts. Based on that, the majority of American wine buyers (who by your words, do not seek or know about regional or varietal character) are inclined to choose those wines that make the most powerful impact on their senses. I believe that much of a wine site’s content should be dedicated to education: basics like regions, varieties, tasting wine, decanting, stemware etc. The problem (often a daunting one) that I think many writers or sources of wine information face is how to make the essentials of wine available to the newbie without dumbing it down or patronizing your audience. I think that, in large part, Appelation America (just one of the publications Berger writes for) does that. So does my site. Is it the obligation of a winery website to offer similar information? I am not sure. Should the Cortis’ have some seminars or on-line content? Probably. I also think that they most likely offer that kind of information during in-store tasting events.

Finally, I would point out that Dan Berger is not really entry-level reading for the neophyte oenophile. If a newbie “walks in” in the middle of what Dan is writing about (and has been for many years), they are likely to be confused. They are equally likely to be confused and turned off from wine when they see you and I going back and forth – granted our exchange has been civil.

Next time you’re in Orange County, bring some sparkling Shiraz. I am well stocked on the official beverage of my fatherland. We can broaden our understanding of the world of wine and medical science.