Wine's potent appeal may be at its limit

Vintners are rethinking their skyrocketing alcohol levels
By Jon Bonné
Updated: 10:57 a.m. ET Aug. 12, 2004

In all the high talk about wine, it's easy to forget this stuff can still get you drunk.

Alcohol content in wines around the world, but perhaps most notably from California, has been creeping up in the past 25 years. If 12 percent was once average for red wine, it now sounds almost uncannily low; 14 percent is almost a baseline for reds, and whites are routinely climbing into the 13s and well above.

Assuming you're drinking for taste — which is to say, you're old enough not simply to choose beverages for their high-octane qualities — more alcohol can be a mixed bag. Jumping from 12 to 16 percent is like an extra half-beer with each glass of wine.

Higher alcohol often accompanies the full, ripe, deep qualities that grace some of the most highly prized New World wines. It usually results from ultra-ripe fruit, often picked late into the harvest season, that also yields a taste explosion.

Yet some winemakers and wine sellers are growing reticent of these powerhouses, often finding them so overwhelming, so "hot" in alcohol, they can only be enjoyed on their own. It is especially worrisome to those want wine as part of a meal.

"Wine is a complement to food. Those wines do not compliment food. As someone once said, maybe wild boar, preferably still alive," says renowned winemaker Paul Draper of Ridge Vineyards. "It's a wine that dominates the meal. It's a food in itself. You don't need the food; it's superfluous."

Draper does not shy away from a healthy alcohol content. While Cabernet sauvignon can express itself just fine at 12 or 13 percent, he believes, zinfandel requires at least 14 percent to show its true colors.

Yet last year, for the first time in 38 years, he found himself splitting grape lots for his Geyserville zinfandel — using less ripe grapes with lower alcohol to make his usual style of wine, and bottling another version with the late-harvested powerhouse fruit.

Winemakers have several ways to monitor grapes in the vineyard. They can measure brix, which dictates how much of a grape's sugar can be converted into alcohol. They can simply use their tongues, tasting to see if a grape is ready. Winemakers who produce these big wines often insist they simply pick to taste, seeking the fruit that best reflects the vineyard.

"I've always been baffled by the militant attitude that some people have ... that we're ruining the wine," says Ehren Jordan, winemaker at Turley Wine Cellars, which has achieved near-cult status with zinfandels in the 17-percent range.

Managing the grape

Why are wines getting more potent? First, grape-growing has become a true science. Excellent vineyard management has yielded grapes that are a model of health, bursting with flavor, with little disease to wither them.

And despite those hoary allusions between California and France, most of France struggles to ripen grapes in a temperate climate while hotter U.S. sites allow grapes to ripen far better. ("California's more like Tunisia," Jordan says.)

More influential has been the will of the market. Usually big and bold, high alcohol wines can be enjoyed within a year or so of release; that happens to be the very sort of wine many consumers, including collectors, are buying. The age of the 12-percent Bordeaux from barely ripe fruit, needing years in the bottle to evolve, is largely past.

The trend has been hugely accelerated by critics, most notably wine guru Robert Parker and Wine Spectator magazine, two pioneers of the 100-point rating system. Bold, high-alcohol wines easily stand out in tasting -- even among varietal peers -- so it's no surprise many score spectacularly well. Wine buyers often buy by numbers, so big fruit and high alcohol can be key to commercial success.

"It is completely a market-driven industry. It has nothing to do with what's in the bottle," says veteran Napa winemaker and consultant George Vierra.

Vierra was so frustrated by the trend he recently penned an essay arguing that wine should in fact be classified in two categories: "social wines," the high-alcohol bruisers that are often consumed by themselves, and "table wines," intended for food.

In fact, the government already considers anything below 14 percent "table wine," and wine above 14 percent need only approximate its alcohol content within 1.5 percent. A label saying 15 percent can front a wine with 16.5 percent alcohol.

'They think they're great wines'
Vierra has charted the rise of alcohol levels in Napa grapes as they climbed from a low of 12.5 percent in 1971 to a 2001 high of 14.8 percent. But there was also a 14-percent peak in 1978, after which levels dropped sharply.

That previous high-alcohol era ended when drinkers shied away from more potent bottlings. Consumers and critics could again grow weary of a big, potent style.

Some winemakers and retailers suspect it might taper off as high-end buyers discover these wines often won't improve with age.

"My big gripe is with people who are chasing that elusive goal of the 100-point wine," says Mat Garretson, whose Garretson Wine Company turned out a 17.2-percent syrah. "It's pleasant, it's luscious, it's hedonistic. Will it age well? Probably not."

"On the other hand," Draper notes, "If Parker tells them they're 97 or 98 or 100 points, they think they're great wines."

The debate will continue. Vintners point to early high-alcohol vintages, like old David Bruce zinfandels, that still shine after 35 years. There is talk of which varietals are truly appropriate for California's hot climate, and murmurs of Star Trek-sounding techniques to artificially tweak alcohol levels: chaptalization (adding sugar); reverse osmosis machines and spinning cones that filter out alcohol while retaining flavor.

In the end, consumers may guide the way, depending on just how tipsy we want our wine to make us. Retailers are already noticing an impact.

"It becomes a little more physically tiresome to drink that kind of wine," says Michael Teer of Seattle's Pike & Western Wine Shop. "We're still selling the big monsters, but people are asking for something a little more managable, too."


Wine: The Perfect Pairing for Carb-Aware Cuisine

Carb-Conscious Chef Shares Surefire Tips for Today's Lifestyles
Yahoo News (press release)
Friday August 6, 9:00 am ET

CHICAGO, Aug. 6 /PRNewswire/ -- There's no doubt about it -- today's new carbohydrate consciousness is changing the way America eats. In just over a year, The South Beach Diet has sold more than five million copies and Dr. Atkins' New Diet Revolution is fast approaching four hundred weeks on The New York Times Best-Seller List. With the number of carb-conscious eaters growing every day, the latest ACNielsen Homescan Panel Dietary Awareness Survey indicates that as many as 17 percent of Americans currently are following some type of carb-aware eating plan.

"This new generation of carb watching is full of good news and delicious choices, especially for wine drinkers," says chef George Stella, host of Low Carb and Lovin' It on the Food Network. "People who enjoy drinking wine can continue to do so on a low-carb eating plan."

While exact carb counts differ slightly from wine to wine, "Nearly all dry wines fit well below the established 'low-carb' level of less than 7 carbs per 5 ounce serving," explains Wine Market Council President, John Gillespie. Not only is there room to incorporate wine into these eating plans, but the new carb-aware lifestyle is based on celebrating great foods -- foods that are naturals for pairing with wine every day.

So whether you're looking for low carb, smart carb, or just delicious new recipe ideas, Chef Stella has simple tips for incorporating wine with today's carb-aware cuisine. Stella advises starting with the sauce when planning for delicious meals, adjusting the acids for the most flavorful food-wine pairings, firing up the flavor with grilled meals and going global with naturally low-carb ethnic entrees.

Start With The Sauce

"Like any sophisticated cuisine, there are plenty of flavorful, carb-smart sauces that add high-impact punch to any course of your meal -- and they're a great place to start when thinking about wine pairings," explains Stella. For example, red wines like Syrah or Shiraz have just enough acidity and peppery character to handle mustard well, making them a delicious match for a dish like Chef Stella's Low Carb Key West Crab Cakes and Mustard Sauce.

Chardonnay has the backbone and the body to stand up to the rich flavors of creamy sauces. For tomato-based sauces, do as the Italians do and reach for a classic Italian wine like Chianti, or a Sangiovese. The herbaceous character of Sauvignon Blanc offers the perfect balancing act for assertive fresh-tasting herb sauces. And sweeter sauces, such as Teriyaki, are complemented by a well-chilled rose.

Adjust The Acids

Vinaigrettes and vinegar-based marinades are a super low-carb flavor booster, but can pose a challenge for wine pairings because of vinegar's tangy acidity. "Luckily, there are a few easy fixes to make these marinades more wine-friendly," says Stella.

To help adjust the acids, try substituting lemon juice or wine for all or part of the vinegar. A little balsamic vinegar will also balance the acidity with its mild sweetness. Adding a salty ingredient (such as olives or capers), a few chopped nuts, or a little bit of a flavorful cheese like feta or blue cheese also will do the trick.

Or, if you prefer to stick with a mild vinegar, Sauvignon Blancs are crisp and acidic enough to balance the acid and will also complement spices commonly found in vinaigrettes.

Fire Up The Flavor

Grilling has become such an indispensable method of cooking that carb watchers are keeping their grills -- both inside and outside -- fired up year-round. "Not only is it a healthy way to cook, but everyone loves the great smoky taste that grilling imparts to vegetables, seafood, and meat," explains Stella.

Top wines to pair with grilled fare such as Chef Stella's Teriyaki Ginger Tuna Skewers (recipe attached) are versatile Pinot Noirs; medium to full-bodied Chardonnays; or fruity Merlots.

Go Global

Savvy, carb-conscious chefs have taken inspiration from cuisines around the world that already feature naturally low-carb delicacies. Whether it's a spicy South American ceviche or a hearty Tuscan T-bone, follow their lead and take the opportunity to sample an unfamiliar wine from a corresponding country.


Wine makes women brainier!

London, August 2

A new study conducted by researchers of University College, London suggests that drinking half a bottle of wine a day can make your brain work better, especially if you are a woman, reports The Telegraph.

The findings are drawn from a study of the long-term health of 10,000 British civil servants. Researchers tested more than 6000 civil servants on verbal and mathematical reasoning and short-term memory and matched their performance against their drinking habits.

Those having one glass of wine a week scored significantly higher than teetotallers. The benefits were most marked among women and showed no decrease with increasing consumption.

Those who had half a bottle of wine or two pints of beer a day scored best, even after the results had been adjusted for factors such as physical and mental health.

"Our results appear to suggest some specificity in the association between alcohol consumption and cognitive ability. Frequent drinking may be more beneficial than drinking only on special occasions," the researchers said.

The team suggests that the results may reflect the fact that alcohol can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and increase blood flow to the brain.

They however, said that the benefits of alcohol can be outweighed by the increased risks of cancer and cirrhosis, and that the findings should not be used to excuse heavier drinking.

Addiction specialist Dr Martin Lloyd-Jones from St Vincent's Hospital said that while half a bottle of wine a day might make someone cleverer, it would also shorten their life.

"What they're stating appears to be that drinking alcohol improves patients' ability to do psychometric tests. However that doesn't mean that it's good for you because we know that where people consume more than two standard drinks a day, there is a loss of any health benefit from drinking," he added.