Why do California Wines have so much more alcohol today, than they did 30 years ago?

So reading through the comments many of you made on the thread about Kramer's article regarding ageing wine, it sparked my curiosity about alcohol levels in wine.

I know this has been addressed before on the forum, but I can't find it (I know Paul gave a very thorough response, maybe you remember which thread it was on and re-post?).

Why are California wines so high in alcohol these days?

I don't buy that it's climate change, so is it purely a winemaking / farming decision? That can't be it either, though, because you figure at least someone would be making some low-alcohol stuff.

W+A mentioned a 25-year-old Pinot with 11.2%abv. Why don't these exist in California anymore?

I've had a number of 70's Cali Cabs with alcohol level in the 12% range and again, these don't exist anymore.

School me, masters.
Original Post
quote:
Originally posted by Danyull:
1) Robert Parker Jr. liking riper, bigger, more alcoholic wines
2) Consumers doing the same
3) Winemakers wanting to make more money


I could see that being the case if most Cali wines had higher levels of alcohol, but I literally don't know of a single Pinot Noir with 11-12% abv, or a cab in the 12% range.

It can't be as simple as "that's what people like", because you'd have at least a few contrarians.... right?
quote:
Originally posted by jorgerunfrombulls:
quote:
Originally posted by Danyull:
1) Robert Parker Jr. liking riper, bigger, more alcoholic wines
2) Consumers doing the same
3) Winemakers wanting to make more money


I could see that being the case if most Cali wines had higher levels of alcohol, but I literally don't know of a single Pinot Noir with 11-12% abv, or a cab in the 12% range.

It can't be as simple as "that's what people like", because you'd have at least a few contrarians.... right?


I'm confused... your statement seems to support my 1 and 2 points, but the "but" makes me think you disagree?

There are of course, people who don't like the style, myself included, but I feel like it makes up a negligible portion of the general wine market in America. There are a few stalwarts of the old guard, but these days point-chasing is the quickest and easiest way to make your wine profitable from a producer standpoint so that's the direction most of them head.
quote:
There are a few stalwarts of the old guard, but these days point-chasing is the quickest and easiest way to make your wine profitable from a producer standpoint so that's the direction most of them head.


But this is my question... can you name a single one? That's why I'm wondering if it's more than just winemaking / farming practices. If it were a question of mass market, there would be, at least, a handful of people making low alcohol, classically styled wines. I know of wineries that we consider "classically styled", (Dominus, for example), but they're still 14% abv.
Based on my reading, I agree with Danyull. It is due to decisions in the vineyard. I don't buy climate change either. Doesn't make sense that abv would rise so dramatically in such a short period of time.

  • Green harvesting forces the vine to concentrate it's efforts on fewer grapes driving sugar levels higher. Similarly, dropping bunches during veraison that are lagging behind is common practise today. Those bunches would have been destined for lower sugar levels at picking, which would have caused the wine overall to contain a lower abv.
  • Pruning leads to more direct sunlight to the bunches, thus concentrating sugars.
  • I believe winemakers are tempted to push ripeness at least a bit higher today than in years past to achieve higher barrel/release scores, yielding better sales
  • Selection processes cause winemakers to ditch the slightly under ripe grapes they may have included in years past, which again would have kept abv in the final wine lower.
quote:
Originally posted by aphilla:
Some of them have kept fairly low I think. (OK, I can think of one anyway) Isn't Monte Bello around 13% pretty consistently? Did it use to be a lot lower?


Well done, sir. The 2007 is only 13.1% abv. The highest it's been seems to be 13.5%, and it's a bit of an outlier.

So what's Ridge doing that others aren't?

Can anyone else think of any examples in the lower abv range?
quote:
I've had a number of 70's Cali Cabs with alcohol level in the 12% range and again, these don't exist anymore.


There are some producers who fit this mold, even going out of their way to preach against high ABV (Randy Dunn). Here's a few:

- Dunn Vineyards
- Ridge MB
- Corliss
quote:
Originally posted by jorgerunfrombulls:
Sure, it's subjective. And I'm not saying "today's wines are high alcohol", or that there's anything wrong with today's wines.

My question is simply, why do they have so much more alcohol today than they did in the 60's, 70's, and some of the 80's?

I understand your query; I was simply trying to highjack your thread with my own question. Big Grin
quote:
My question is simply, why do they have so much more alcohol today than they did in the 60's, 70's, and some of the 80's?


...because that's what is selling.

At, gigabit, I think most producers consider their wines low alcohol < 14%, though some shoot for much lower.
Alcohol levels are also relative to the grape.

Left Bank cabs are usually under 13.5% except for exceptional years. So a 14-15% Cab would be considered high. Grenache is usually at least 14.5% in the Rhone and most other places where it's grown so the thresh hold for what's considered "high" is different.

Monte Bello is a very cool climate site in the SC mountains with the coastal fog cooling the grapes quite a bit at night. This would slow down sugar formation and lower end alcohol levels.
quote:
Originally posted by spo:
What i hate is when a wine is over 14% yet somehow still vegetal.


Yeah, that sounds pretty gross.

I don't subscribe to the idea that low alcohol wines are somehow "better." Balance is everything. If the producer can make a wine north of 15% and I don't feel the heat melting my throat, I'm fine with it. In fact, quite a few producers make stuff with some heat that really appeals to my palate. A couple that come to mind:

- Alban "Reva" (...or anything from Alban)

- Shafer HSS (the newer vintages are above 15.5%, and still rocking)

- McPrice Meyers "Les Galets" (somewhere approaching 16%, and IMO, perhaps the best Syrah for the money).

I guess my point is that of course we can all see the evolution in the market in respect to ABV. If that's something that doesn't appeal to you, there are plenty of producers that go to great lengths to keep it down. A prime example is Randy Dunn openly admitting to using reverse osmosis. Javachip and I had an interesting conversation about this very issue not too long ago Wink

Anyways, here's a good read:

http://www.sfgate.com/wine/thi...e-3813953.php#page-1
i dunno about dunn personally,

some of his wines are just so damn tight even at 20 years at age, it's like what's the point.

and I'm really patient with my ports!

on top of that instead of coming into balance after the age, some of the less riper vintages show off an even more bell pepper characteristic.
Why higher alcohol?

1.Climate- but not climate change. California has always had the conditions that lead to high sugar at grape maturity.

2. Public preference- Americans like sweet, low acid wines. No pyrazines, please. What sells, the wine makers make.

3. Lack of tradition.- No one ever defined what California wines should taste like, giving plenty of freedom for expression and variation.
In the time I have been drinking California wine the pendulum has swung from austere to ripe to austere and back several times.

4. Vineyard practices and root stocks- Winemakers don't have to contend with "unripe" grapes in nearly any vintage.

5. Maybe the critics a bit- but not much. You can't push a rope.
quote:
Originally posted by LBJ2012FinalsMVPisclutch:
Global warming produces those long warm summers and falls which allow for extended hangtime which in turn produces more sugar which makes more alcohol. Its not solely Global Warming's fault but it does play a role.


I dont know if extended hangtime makes any sense. Each variety needs a certain amount of hangtime to reach physiological ripeness. That hangtime is rather independent from temperature. If during that hangtime the temperature is very high, the resulting grapes will have very high amounts oft sugar. If one tries to avoid high sugars by reducing hangtime, the result is vegetable wines, as described before, because the grapes lack physiological ripeness.
quote:
Originally posted by Shane T.:
quote:
I've had a number of 70's Cali Cabs with alcohol level in the 12% range and again, these don't exist anymore.


There are some producers who fit this mold, even going out of their way to preach against high ABV (Randy Dunn). Here's a few:

- Dunn Vineyards
- Ridge MB
- Corliss

I believe that Diamond Creek is regularly in the 12.5% zone. Always was and still is.
Global warming plus vineyard intervention and catering to the Parkerization of the modern palate.

While it's true that California has always had the climate to support the longer hang time with riper, higher sugar content grapes, the bigger riper high alcohol wines seem to be coming from other places too: CDP comes to mind as one example.

The combination of changing climate as well as vineyard & vinification techniques and catering to the point score criteria appear to be converging to the effect of these big ripe, higher alcohol wines in many places.
A paper from three researchers at UC-Davis written in 2011 concludes it is not due to global warming, but likely due to changes in vineyard management practices (trellising, green harvests, canopy pruning) that cause grapes to create more sugar earlier in the season allowing for longer hang times. This has resulted in average brix rising from 21.4 in 1980 to 23.3 in 2008, which translates into higher alcohol.

Clicky here for summary article


Geeks click here for research article
I think they're right - it's almost all due to stylistic changes.

Just went down to the cellar and looked at a few randomly pulled bottles of Monte Bello - 1995 = 13.3; 2008 = 13.5; 2009 = 13.5. Zins are higher but one made me look twice - 1983 at 12%.

Looked at some random Dunns too, from 1987 thru 199 and they're consistently 13%.

There are many more wineries now than there were 20 years ago, and if people have a preference for riper wines, that's one reason for the average alcohol level to be higher. But more importantly, I think the style has become far more oriented towards ripe and lush wines.

Grgich changed right around 1994 - look at the bottles from the early 1990s vs those from mid 1990s. B.V. has changed w/in the past few years and when they engaged Rolland in 2007, Parker announced that they were "back" as a top notch producer.

I don't think it's "catering to the Parkerization of the modern palate" at all though. I think he likes what many people like, it's not like people "naturally" would like thin, green, weedy wines if it weren't for his nefarious influence. I think winemakers finally figured out how to make lusher and riper wines and the critics and public have responded positively.

More importantly, I think Pape du Neuf is right on the money -

quote:
Lack of tradition.- No one ever defined what California wines should taste like, giving plenty of freedom for expression and variation.
In the time I have been drinking California wine the pendulum has swung from austere to ripe to austere and back several times.


People are still figuring out what's "best". I hope nobody ever does define what CA wines "should" taste like so that the pendulum can keep swinging.

Personally I don't like hot, sweet wines, but sometimes you just don't notice the alcohol at all. Shafer HSS is an example.
quote:
Originally posted by vinole:
A paper from three researchers at UC-Davis written in 2011 concludes it is not due to global warming, but likely due to changes in vineyard management practices (trellising, green harvests, canopy pruning) that cause grapes to create more sugar earlier in the season allowing for longer hang times. This has resulted in average brix rising from 21.4 in 1980 to 23.3 in 2008, which translates into higher alcohol.

Clicky here for summary article


Geeks click here for research article


they missed the very important past 4-5 years of climate changes!@
There was a thread similar to this a couple of years ago on ebob. One guy linked to a story where they tested a good amount of CA wines from the 60-70's and a large % of the wines had alcohol levels 2-3 points higher than what was stated on the bottle. Guess the same could be said for today as well. I know there are rules about that now but I wonder how strictly they are followed.
quote:
Originally posted by GlennK:
There was a thread similar to this a couple of years ago on ebob. One guy linked to a story where they tested a good amount of CA wines from the 60-70's and a large % of the wines had alcohol levels 2-3 points higher than what was stated on the bottle. Guess the same could be said for today as well. I know there are rules about that now but I wonder how strictly they are followed.


esp witht eh 14% ABV tax.

a budding industry, money wasn't as free, might have played an important point of posting low ABVs
It is an interesting query as to why pretty much no one in CA makes reds in the 12s, and on the other side why no one a couple decades ago made them in the 15s.

Vyd practices have definitely changed. People now are just fine with adding acid, watering down the grapes, or reverse osmosis. The last two are fairly recent developments.

I can trace at least some of this back to 1997. A hot year, ripe fruit, and Parker loved the wines. This seemed to be a turning point.

For me, I now look at the alc on the label before buying. I've been "fooled" by my own palate a few times with high alc wines (mostly zins) that don't age even a year and don't match with food. They're usually okay for a cocktail wine, but that's usually not what I'm buying.
quote:
Originally posted by Bob H:
It is an interesting query as to why pretty much no one in CA makes reds in the 12s, and on the other side why no one a couple decades ago made them in the 15s.

Vyd practices have definitely changed. People now are just fine with adding acid, watering down the grapes, or reverse osmosis. The last two are fairly recent developments.

I can trace at least some of this back to 1997. A hot year, ripe fruit, and Parker loved the wines. This seemed to be a turning point.

For me, I now look at the alc on the label before buying. I've been "fooled" by my own palate a few times with high alc wines (mostly zins) that don't age even a year and don't match with food. They're usually okay for a cocktail wine, but that's usually not what I'm buying.


You're doing it wrong, man! You have to do the "Mollydooker Shake!"

Hah! I kid...good post.
quote:
Originally posted by gigabit:
At what percentage does a red wine become "high alcohol?" 14%? 15%? Is it completely subjective?


Probably not the first to comment on this but I thought I'd make a note that "High Alcohol" is actually not completely subjective, and is defined by the federal and state governments. High Alcohol refers to any wine that it is 14.1% and more ABV, and Low Alcohol refers to wine 14% and below. They are taxed at two different rates.

Add Reply

Likes (0)
×
×
×
×