Lately there has been a trend to distill a wine’s essence down to one number- percentage alcohol. See the drivel on the IPOB (In Pursuit of Balance) website at your own risk. Numbers and statistics rarely tell the whole picture, but do offer insight. With wine, I would argue that the level of alcohol tells you more about stylistic decisions and vintage weather, than it does about quality. If you’re looking for simplistic views on complex issues, this isn’t the right place for you; just keep watching the presidential campaign debates.
So, how’d we get here, to this confusing landscape? Basically, facts and science have been devalued, and the internet is now just shouting one’s opinion loudly and repeatedly. Many wine “writers” have zero scientific education. The only time they have seen a chemistry lab is on Breaking Bad. I won’t go further into discussing our crumbling educational system or the general populace’s lack of critical thinking. But, let’s start our conversation with the basics.
I’ve read all sorts of articles claiming that drinking lower-alcohol wines, say 12.5%, allows people to drink without getting drunk, compared to a standard California wine at 14%. Poor math skills are to blame here. A 14% wine has only 12% more alcohol per glass than a 12.5% wine. In the grand scheme of things, this isn’t getting you a DUI- that third glass in an hour is! You’ll also read articles that say wines at 14%+ taste “hot” that you get some alcohol burn on the finish. Yes, this can be true, but not always. Alcohol is just one component of the whole matrix of wine flavor. Bigger, more tannic, more extracted wines don’t show “heat” as easily as thinner, lighter styles do, as there is so much more going on, it’s hard to pick out just the alcohol. I do find, though, that proper serving temperature has a huge role to play in this argument. Serving any red wine at 80°, you’re going to feel the alcohol, at 55° not so much. Lesson here, cool down your wines before drinking. California room temp is almost always too hot. Thirty minutes in your fridge before opening will do.
What is ripeness? How do you tell if a grape is ripe? There are two ways: physiological ripeness and phenolic ripeness. Physiological ripeness is characterized by hardening seeds and dark-colored grapes, for red wine varieties. The vine is merely trying to entice some bird or bear or goat to eat those nice-looking grapes and spread its seed. That’s it! This is a grapevine’s mandate- procreate. Sounds familiar, right? Phenolic ripeness is a bit murkier subject. Every winemaker views this differently. Some are picking on flavor or aroma (phenolics.) Usually this makes over-ripe wines that the winemaker needs to then acidify to get back to being palatable. Some pick by numbers alone, looking for the proper balance of sugar, acid, pH, tannin and anthocyanins (color.) This is a more reasonable approach, but has its pitfalls. What do you do in a hot year, like 2014 and 2015, when the numbers tell you the grapes are ready, but it’s early August? Many Pinot Noir producers say they are emulating Burgundy. Well, if you pick at 21° Brix like they often do in Burgundy, you’re picking in early August, not late October as in the Cote de Beaunes. Will your grapes have enough complexity and flavor at this point, even though the numbers look good?
To me, trying to force a predetermined style onto a completely different set of variables is folly- this ain’t Burgundy. I’m ok with that. We can make delicious Pinot Noir here in California, and in dozens of cool places around the world. I appreciate that the IPOB folks are trying to swing the pendulum back from the full-on, extracted, over-oaked style of Pinot popularized by Wine Spectator and Robert Parker. Making jammy, syrupy wine has never been my goal. I like a leaner, more savory version of Pinot and like how these wines develop, not getting tired like big, flabby wines do after a handful of years. I think if you need to de-alcoholize your wine, you’ve got a problem with your decision making. Just because you can over-ripen your grapes for concentrated flavors, then pull some alcohol out to make the wine less “hot” doesn’t mean you should. However, when the IPOB crew has a selection committee (read popularity contest) and a holy number (14.0% alcohol max) that is supposed to be an absolute determinant of quality, this seems more like dogma to me than a friendly trade organization; a well-oiled publicity machine, yes, but not the enthroned arbiters of good taste that they present themselves as.