Recently while watching the TV news a report came on about the elevated alcohol by volume that has become normative in dinner wines. The standard ABV thirty years ago was around twelve percent. Now it is closer to fifteen percent. So what gives?
First of all, lets resolve not to give the TV news too much credit for their hard hitting journalism. The situation did not occur overnight. As a matter of fact wine ABV has been rising steadily for more than thirty years, ever since Robert Parker's affinity for highly extracted red wines so impacted the commercial wine world everyone had to follow suit. You talk about a guy with too much power!
What actually was the change? What is now regarded as the "international style" of wine making makes use of additional "hang time" for grapes on the vine, effectively extending the growing season for riper grapes with higher sugars. In wine making sugar gets converted to alcohol. If there is more sugar present, unless it's intended to be a sweet wine, the alcohol content of the wine will, of necessity, be higher. That has become the new normal.
So what's wrong with that? Well, when dining, higher alcohol wines don't marry with foods as well as the old 12% standard. So much of tasting is done with the nose and the stronger alcoholic bouquet blocks out the more subtle and nuanced wine aromas. In the mouth it works similarly. Just as heavily oaked wines tend to coat the tongue, the finer flavors in the dining experience just get clobbered by high alcohol wines.
Higher alcohol wines can also taste raisiny or as in my case, reminiscent of the stewed fruit of my Finnish-American childhood. What are raisins anyway, but overly ripe grapes. In the hotter grape growing regions, places like southern Italy and Spain, the entire Australian wine country, and the Central Valley of California, grape growers have to both avoid that result from harvesting too late and avoid the vegetal quality in wine caused by the inclusion of unripe grapes. Those wine makers have to be fairly exact in their harvesting calculations, especially with modern mechanized equipment that indescriminately harvests all types of grapes in bunches.
So are these mass marketed wines the same as the Parkerized highly extracted wines we began talking about? No, not really. The wines Parker loved thirty years ago were the product of garagistas, the small guys who were rebelling against the conservative historic wine making norms of the times. The mass marketers came later (as they always do) with lower quality approximations of what Parker liked. Today while the boutiques can justifiably boast of the quality that comes with "handmade" production, the giants can also boast about just how far technology has come to raise the standards for their kind of production too.
And by the way, isn't it delectable to note how things have come full circle with regard to this subject. Unfortunately, if the lower alcohol crowd wants to reverse the course we are now traveling, that change will have to be one of enlightening our cultural consciousness over time.