Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Are you drowning in high alcohol wines?

The alcohol debate resurfaced this morning in my copy of the San Diego Union Tribune. Much of the information in the article is old news. But it, again, raised the question in my mind of just how many wines have high alcohol? According to some we seem to drowning in high alcohol wines. Are we?

Its not a simple question to answer. First you have to define high alcohol; I’m not going to go into the speculation about how or why alcohol levels have been increasing over the last few decades. Some would argue that anything over 12.5% is extreme. Others, like Darrell Corti, put the limit at 14.5%. For me there is no cut-off level. I agree with my wife, who after looking at the article in the Union Tribune said, “Isn’t it simply a matter of whether the wine tastes good?”

Second, once you have set your limit you need to start counting wines. However most of the critics of increasing alcohol don’t seem to do this. Instead they simply note that average alcohol levels have been increasing (usually over the last few decades). But I’d like to see some real numbers. Are we (actually it really should just be you) up to our butts in high alcohol wines? Our chests? Our heads? Or are they just nibbling at our ankles? Well again it depends on your definition but fortunately we can get an idea by using the numbers in a recent post by Alan Goldfarb on Appellation America. Goldfarb wrote "At the recently concluded ZAP (Zinfandel Advocates & Producers) annual Zin Drench at Fort Mason in San Francisco, an informal survey by this reporter of about 140 wines revealed some startling statistics. Of the approximately 140 presented at the event exclusively for the press, 54 Zinfandels stated on their labels that they contained alcohol levels of 14 to 14.5 percent. Another 11 listed their alcohol content as less than 14 percent. That’s an astonishing 46 percent of wines that have relatively low levels of alcohol in a varietal category that consistently registers alcohol percentages to the 15 to 16 plus mark. (For the record, five of those 140 wines indeed had stated alcohol numbers of 16 to 16.9 percent - yikes!)"

So how drenched in alcoholic Zins are you? If you are Darrell Corti your about up to your waist because 46% (65 of the 140 wines) were 14.5% or less. If you draw the line at 16% then you only have a few ankle biters to worry about because about 4% were 16% and above. But if you draw the line below 14%, like Randy Dunn, then you better start swimming because 92% (129/140) of the wines were higher than your definition. Me? I’m on dry land enjoying the view. There is no way I’m going to drown over the alcohol in wine. And neither should you.

Drowning image Copyright 2008 iStock International Inc.

10 comments:

Arthur said...

Michael, again, we have to stop focusing on the alcohol levels. Yes, they are part of the issue, but they are not the whole problem. Wines can be (and notoriously are) watered back: they may contain lower alcohol, but if the fruit was too ripe it will taste lousy. You can try to salvage that with acidulation, it's a common practice. You will end up with a 15.5% - 16% ABV wine and acids that *look* reasonable. (the acid and alcohol relationship becomes much clearer when one looks at field chemistries taken from the grapes - not the chemistry of the finished wine). But it will still be an over-ripe wine.

Finally, a wine that “tastes good” to someone (and does not meet some standard criteria for quality other than an enthusiast’s subjective opinion) does not have to be a *good* wine from a quality point of view.

Arthur Przebinda
Founder
redwinebuzz.com

Arthur said...

Michael, again, we have to stop focusing on the alcohol levels. Yes, they are part of the issue, but they are not the whole problem. Wines can be (and notoriously are) watered back: they may contain lower alcohol, but if the fruit was too ripe it will taste lousy. You can try to salvage that with acidulation, it's a common practice. You will end up with a 15.5% - 16% ABV wine and acids that *look* reasonable. (the acid and alcohol relationship becomes much clearer when one looks at field chemistries taken from the grapes - not the chemistry of the finished wine). But it will still be an over-ripe wine.

Finally, a wine that “tastes good” to someone (and does not meet some standard criteria for quality other than an enthusiast’s subjective opinion) does not have to be a *good* wine from a quality point of view.

Michael Pollard said...

Arthur,

The simple problem with not focusing on the alcohol level written on the bottle is that we end up with nothing else to focus on. Unless you are the winemaker or have some knowledge of the techniques the winemaker used to make an individual wine you can’t make any constructive commentary on the issue of alcohol levels in wine. After all, most of the critics of ripe, rich, fruit forward wines use the elevated levels of alcohol in these wines to frame their argument!

And I really, seriously disagree with this idea that because an individual likes a wine that this is not a measure of quality. This smacks to me of elitism. Emile Peynaud wrote eloquently on the quality of wine in his book “The Taste of Wine”. A very simple, obvious, and very clear definition is this: “The quality of a wine is the totality of its properties, that is to say, the properties which render it acceptable or desirable.” In effect, it is the totally subjective pleasure provided by drinking the wine which conditions judgment.

He went on to write Behind each definition lies hidden the person, who, in the final analysis, actually judges the quality, the wine drinker. Quality only exists in relation to this individual and then only in so far as he has the ability to perceive it and approve it. Quality will depend on his judgment, that is, on his taste, his preferences, and the pleasure he derives from wine.

Now that's quality!

Arthur said...

Well, I propose we re-frame the discussion. My contention is that these wines have been labeled "high alcohol" wines when they have so much more wrong with them.

I'm sorry Michael, but it is not a matter of elitism, it is a matter of quality standards. We have standards in science and we have quality standards in other products - including food stuffs. That is why appellation and classification systems in the old world are based on quality standards. If these are so stodgy and elitist, why have certain wines, wineries or vineyards maintained venerated places in the world of wine?

If an individual likes a wine it only means that that individual likes the wine. Nothing more. However, you seem to draw a connection that doesn't exist: that being that if I believe a wine you like is utter crap, then by extension, I hold you in contempt. That is not the case.

Michael Pollard said...

If an individual likes a wine it only means that that individual likes the wine. Nothing more. However, you seem to draw a connection that doesn't exist: that being that if I believe a wine you like is utter crap, then by extension, I hold you in contempt. That is not the case.

Contempt is your word, not mine. I suggest you read Peynaud.

Arthur said...

Michael,

You seem to be taking this very personally. We are debating the merits of a style of wine, not those of each other's characters.

An elitist feels superiority over others they feel to be beneath them and holds them in contempt. Hence, my use of the word.

It may sound harsh, but Peynaud’s philosophy is a feelgoodism. It is validatory of conclusions which are erroneous or misguided. You would never apply Peynaud’s philosophy to assessing the purity of monoclonal antibodies. Why apply it to something for which people pay good money? People can enjoy, buy and consume whatever they like. However, you should not have to pay BMW prices for a Yugo, nor should anyone pretend (or let others believe) that the two are equal.

Michael Pollard said...

Arthur,

No I would not apply Peynaud’s definition of wine quality to the characterization of a monoclonal antibody, but then the quality of a MoAb can be defined by objective analytical measurements such as specificity, purity, potency, and stability. In fact if I want to use my MoAb as a biologic I have to satisfy numerous regulations and guidelines in the GXP’s laid down by the FDA. There are no such requirements in terms of wine quality. Yes various parameters of wine can be measured analytically (alcohol, total acidity, pH, sugar etc) and measurements can even be made of faults in the wine (TCA, for example), but these identify whether a wine can be called wine (% alcohol requirement for example) and whether it is a sound wine or faulty. They are not indicators of quality and certainly don’t identify a good wine from a great wine; not even geographical location can do that. If we could use analytical criteria to define the quality of great wine then the diversity of wine would be much less than what it is.

It is a shame that you so readily dismiss Peynaud because he does believe in the quality of wine but not in terms of an entirely objective description. Yes there is an argument that those with greater experience with wine do believe that they can assess wine objectively. Even I believe this. I am quite confident that using the experience I have accumulated in tasting wine that I can assess a wine in terms of sight, smell and taste (including balance, structure, finish and suitability for aging, etc). But I also believe that the objective criteria that I have established are bounded by my own abilities of sensory perception as well as the ability to accurately describe either verbally or in written form what I see, smell and taste. And as such my assessment of the quality of a wine includes subjective elements. That assessment may even by influenced (consciously or subconsciously) by other factors. In the end my idea of quality is mine alone. Others may agree with my final assessment but there may be quite significant differences in how that consensus is reached.

If you won’t read Peynaud then how about

How does one define quality in wine?

Objective Measures of Wine Quality

The Intrinsic Dimensions of Wine Quality: An Exploratory Investigation

Michael Pollard said...

Or maybe this?
Wine Quality Scores - Why Do They Vary?

Arthur said...

Why is it that I see this Peynaud quote waved around every time there is a discussion which hinges on the fact that that for a very long time people have reliably and reproducibly judged wines against established and accepted standards? It seems the use of this quote serves only to make people feel that the wine they chose and drink is good. That is why I believe the Peynaud philosophy is erroneous and more importantly misleading.

The same goes for this: "An understanding of wine sensory attributes, wine composition and grape composition is a highly challenging task and it must be emphasized that no one measure will be universally applicable, and there cannot be an absolute answer to quality." It's hogwash. These approaches look at a problem and find ways not to solve it. I prefer a "how can we solve this" approach?

If you don't want to meet me halfway on the MoAB analogy, then I defer to Karen MacNeil: "You may not like reading Shakespeare but agree that Shakespeare was a great writer nonetheless." That means you are not interjecting your preference. This approach does not have to produce a “soulless” product.

I feel that wine can absolutely be assessed by some basic objective standards of quality – on the merits of the grape(s), site and vintage - as it has been long before our time. The first thing one has to do is look past one's preferences. The second thing is not to do comparative tastings they result in the wines with the greatest power of extraction coming out. I think you might find a lot less variation in scores and ratings then.

I have read the articles you linked to and I can’t help but feel like the authors were seeking to validate the “whatever tastes good to you is a quality wine” notion. Still, I’m willing to peruse your copy of “The taste of Wine”

Red Neckerson said...

Oh my god... both of you get a grip! Let the wine snob judge "quality" wines in his own way. Let the man on the street judge it in his own. Wine snobs is exactly what I meant because good tasting wine can be made from any fruit and with the proper methods make it a "quality" wine... However snobs won't even consider it wine.. If you like it. drink it, if you don't. pour it down the drain and shut up. Pardon me I am a redneck wine connoisseur.