November 2009

The Dirty Secrets of High Alcohol Wines, Part One

by Jack Stuart on November 15, 2009

flowerGirl_blog_wh2A few years ago, research showed that pyrazines, the compounds responsible for vegetal aromas and flavors in grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, could be reduced by extremely late picking. Winemakers who had never tasted classic Cabernet or Bordeaux decided that by harvesting at extraordinarily high Brix levels (a measure of percent sugar), they could avoid green character in their wines. Along the way they lost sight of the fact that attractive herbal and olive notes are desirable in Cabernet and are fundamental components in its flavor profile. If ripe was good, these winemakers concluded, hyperripe was better.

The resulting wines were thick, dark and strong, and often sweet from incomplete fermentation. Worse, they had alcohol levels approaching that of Port. They didn’t taste like classic Cabernet, two glasses made you too drunk to drive, and the wines tended to fall apart in just a few years. Many consumers were seduced by their power alone. Publications which had once preferred graceful, ageworthy wines, encouraged the trend by consistently giving blockbuster wines high scores. Marquee winemakers built their reputations on such scores and carried the techniques everywhere they went. Some members of the trade went along, selling wines on the basis of scores alone.

Overlooked in the alcohol debates is the amount of manipulation that is required to make high-alcohol table wines. Any must over 25° or 26° Brix needs help to ferment to dryness. Musts sometimes arrive in the cellar with Brixes of 28° or 30° or more. The resulting wines are anything but “natural.” Read the details of wines made in the lab, not the vineyard, in our next post.

—Jack Stuart, Winemaker & Partner