Wine Science is a Toddler

Factors that have led to significant rise in alcohol levels in many Californian wines over the last 20 years

Higher °Brix levels and climate change

Parker

US wine consumption and novice drinkers

Advantages and disadvantages of higher alcohol levels

Wine science is a toddler

“Too Much of a Good Thing”? – A study on sugar rise in grapes

Contributing factors, a tale of coincidences, or both?

 Back in 2005, Jancis Robinson posted an abridged version of an article written for California Grapevine by wine writer Dan Berger, addressing that a clear majority of Californian wines in the 1980’s; specifically 1986-1988 (tasted by California Grapevine) had in-between 13,0 and 13,8 % abv. (e.g. 1986 Fetzer, Barrel Select (13,85 abv) and Shafer, Hillside Select 13,0% abv (1)) and that above 14% abv wines were rare sights.

Comparing these times lighter wine styles to the much bolder, riper, fuller-bodied and higher in alcohol ones of the 2000s, the point was that too much alcohol would kill the elegance of a wine together with the compatibility of pairing it with food simply because more alcohol in wines means lower acidity, and as a rule of thumb wines need acidity if they are supposed to go with food.

Dan Berger wrote the article few days after he’d attended a symposium staged by the Carneros Quality Alliance (CQA) where the main focus was ‘grape ripeness and what constituted it’. At the event David Graves of Saintsbury was moderator. He opened the venue stating:

In the early 1980s, we all heard of the term ‘food wines’, which were wines that were supposed to go with food. They were balanced and had less explosive power. Today, we have wines with alcohol levels that are much higher than we have ever had before. Why are alcohol levels so high? Why is fruit being picked at higher Brix than we ever picked at before? Can we tolerate such alcohol levels? Wine styles are a human creation. We can make decisions that affect wine style in a great way (1).

 

Higher °Brix levels and climate change

Graves asks ‘why are alcohol levels so high’ and actually responds to one of the fundamental reasons for it himself by stating that fruit is picked at higher °Brix levels than before (at least, generally. At a seminar given by Vinquiry in 2006 entitled “24° and above: Creating High Impact Wines From Ultra-ripe Fruit”, wine expert and VP of Global Wine and Brand Education at Beam Wine Estates, pointed out that flabby, tasty but not food-friendly wine with high brix levels and tannins were made in the 1970s and in the 1980s too (2)).

While’ climate change’ in many forums is easily attributed the main reason for grape fruit picked at higher °Brix it’s important to remember (like Graves also said: “Wine styles are a human creation”) that different viticultural practises in the vineyard and measures in the vinification and treatment processes in the wineries can be applied to avoid final wines containing too high levels of alcohol. There are also companies that specialize in removing alcohol from wine (e.g. ConeTech and Wine Secrets (3)). So climate change or not, maybe, some vignerons actually do wish to produce wines with high alcohol content.

 

Parker

Most of us have heard about wine critic Robert Parker and the ‘Parker’-trend, which he seemingly initiated. A trend being about how he (and others) favoured full-bodied, high-alcohol/sweeter, fruitier/riper, ‘easier’ and faster-to-drink wines when giving scores (from around the 1990s and onwards), over earlier times’ preferred wine styles, like wines from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980’s. Many of such wines had lower alcohol, higher acidity and some instant fruit. But were less immediately ripe. Meaning you had to wait years to enjoy their full potential. In terms of getting to experience a glass of wine well-balanced by having had time to age and thus having allowed fruit to further mature and tannins to become smooth. All held together by acidity with PH-levels around 3,3-3,5/3,6 at picking.

So considering the style of many of the 90+ wines scored by Parker (high alcohol, sweeter, fuller-bodied, richer wines), bought and seemingly largely liked by consumers (they keep on buying them), it appears as wine at it’s core, basically belonging to the category of FMCG, wins. In contrast to being perceived by the consumer as part of the ‘SlowFood/SlowWine’ movement, which would allow time for wine to become. (Apparently) For a large group of consumers, the time needed is nor not in their posses and more importantly nor is the need yet understood. And this phenomena seems to be a dog biting it’s own tail.

 

US wine consumption and novice drinkers

In the US, wine consumption per-capita has gone from 1,89 gallons in 1996 to 2,94 in 2016 (4) (although there was an important increase/decrease from 1976-1995: from 1,73 gallons in per-capita consumption in 1976 topping at 2,43 in 1986, decreasing all the way down at 1,77 in 1995).

According to Dan Berger, a significant reason for this increase is that a great number of novice drinkers, with a passion for “soft, flat-and-flabby wines” has chosen wine as a beverage too and their lack of interest in “crisp and dry”, has become a paradigm for marketing departments aiming to deliver what the market seems to demand (1).

With this referral I do not wish to state that novice drinkers are unreachable, not at all. If nobody has ever told you or educated you and you don’t know how beautiful a wine made ‘old style’ becomes when it peaks (e.g. a wine with grapes picked at 20-21 °Brix, en garde with regards to phenolic matureness and PH-levels at 3,3-3,4) and how such an experience emotionally can make you reach significant levels of joy, appreciation and a feeling of ‘being part of something very special’, how would you know? Why shouldn’t you like something that actually does taste well too, it might have high alcohol but it’s smooth, full-bodied, fruity, rich and sweeter (our brains looooove sweets), and it’s often cheaper too. So might you say, who cares about drinking ‘old-styled’, sophisticated or emotional ‘elite’-wines?

I absolutely don’t think it’s odd that consumers pick wines based on what wine critics and their own wallets tell them. What I on the contrary could find -not odd, but sad- is the general lack of information on the beautifulness delivered by ‘old styled wines’ –the ones in the middle of fine wine selling at extremely high prices and the ones killed by alcohol (it stands to reason that some fine wines (e.g. in Bordeaux) also have rising well above 14% abv, but despite Chateaux like Margaux and La Mission Haut Brion who both have hit 15% abv in some vintages (5), such wines are much less seen as they are in California).

Of course I know that at first hand this way of thinking is not very commercial, wines in-between would cost the consumer more and need more of his or her time. But it would be wonderful if the wine press would start hyping the elegant expressions of ‘old styled wines’ more, educating people and explaining about the differences.

 

Advantages and disadvantages of higher alcohol levels

Not only in the name of romanticism, indeed importantly too because higher levels of alcohol has some significant disadvantages. For instance, people consume much more alcohol by glass than previous. The correct level of abv is absolutely not always what the wine label says, so consumers cannot be sure of how much alcohol they’re actually consuming. Important test are being performed on every single bottle that enters Canada destined Ontario by the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO) (LCBO has monopoly on all wine imports to Ontario) and measuring the actual alcohol content in the wines is one of the things LCBO tests for.

Data from 1990-2008 shows noteworthy discrepancies of 0,72 % abv (bottles with indication of a 12,63% abv actually contained 13,35% abv) (3).

In the US there’s a +/- tolerance of 1,5% for wines with until 14% abv and a +/- tolerance of 1,0% for wines above 14% abv, so the difference between the claimed content on the label with what was actually in it is legal, but still very misleading to the destined target, the consumers.

Other disadvantages is the fact that the longer the grapes ripen on the vines, as in quite late in their growing cycle, the more raisiny they get, thus the farer away from their original varietal characteristics (1) and finally high-alcohol wines are less food-friendly.

Nothing is so bad that it isn’t good for something else. As disadvantages’ positive counterpart I should therefore mention that wines with higher alcohol are bolder, richer, more fruit driven and easier to understand. And many are also cheaper. In this context it’s however important to say that high alcohol wines with high scores given by Parker often are in the ultra-premium and premium market, and such wines aren’t necessarily cheap. But (some) wine producers in the lower price categories, witnessing how “Parker-wines” have sold, has followed suit imitating the higher alcohol trend by making equal samples, sold at much lower prices compared to the premium and ultra-premium wine categories (3). Talking about money, that’s where ‘wine science’ comes into the picture

 

Wine science is a toddler

Wine science, as we know it today, might seem as if it’s been around forever, but it’s actually only a toddler. This can very well be the reason why resources with regards to education and explanation (or lack of same) post-Parker are spent primarily promoting FMCG and in the end thus a contributing factor to why sugar levels in grapes at picking has risen.

Like it or not, significant sums of money in the category of FMCG are at stake and wines here are easier understood (needless to say, significant sums of money are at stake too in the business of fine wine selling at thousands of dollars per case, but that’s another segment of the wine business and another category of consumers). Just as it takes time to wait for an old-styled-produced wine to peak, it takes time to educate. It takes time to ‘convince’ (explaining, educating) consumers to spend much more money on one bottle of wine. So the wine business as a whole need time too, and of course willingness, to get started at educating and explaining. For instance the remarkable difference between a commercial (+) 15% Cali-Bordeaux blend and a 12,5 to tops 13,5% old-styled produced Bordeaux (once upon a time common styles of Bordeaux wines contained 12-12,5% abv, in 1948 Mouton Rothschild was even all the way down at the minimum of 10,5 abv (5)).

50-60 years ago the wine industry as a whole didn’t have a quarter of the wisdom that has been achieved, shared and educated on till this day. No need to talk about the luxury of “having experience” in the wine trade, which was reserved for true scholars only. And some approx. 40 years ago, in 1981, California wine bearing acreage (278,935 acres (3)) was only around half of todays 560,000 acres (total wine bearing acreage in 2016 (6) – so wine production and consumption was much lower) and Davis, The University of California, had only recently (in 1955 (7:p.5) started up their experimental 40 acres of vineyards in Oakville for research and education.

Wine science as we know of it today, is quite new (“wine science” is a wide term e.g. including the knowledge of how higher density plantings generally provide for better crops, how special trellising systems are better suited in one area and in another not, how special rootstocks are better suited for some varietals and for others not, how a style of wine is achieved or avoided, how to handle pests, diseases, and much more).

Following these thoughts another question pops up; what about US federal alcohol taxes? The higher the alcohol content (abv) the higher the tax rate. Wines containing up till 14% abv are taxed USD$1.07 per gallon and wines exceeding 14% (until 21%), 1.57.

Why would wine producers want to pay higher taxes? If you make, lets say, 100.000 gallons (379.000 litres) of wine a year, USD$0,5 per gallon, as in USD$50.000 start to matter. Even if US novice drinkers (75% of California wine is sold in America (8:p.128)) prefer soft and flabby wines over tart and dry, why make them wines so high, exceeding 14% abv?

 

“Too Much of a Good Thing”? – A study on sugar rise in grapes

A very interesting study from 2011 conducted by Davis Professor Julian M. Alston and colleagues sheds some light into this exact matter:

From 1980 till 2007/2008 a significant physical change occurred in California. There was a shift from producing white grapes (containing less sugar at picking) to use red and ‘premium’ quality varietals (containing higher sugar at picking) and California wine-bearing acreage went up with approx. 60% from 278,935 acres in 1980 till 445,472 acres in 2007 (and from 1980-2016 it doubled (4)). The counties in which acreage grew the most were

–       The Delta with 185% (from 17,355 acres in 1981 till 49,558 in 2008)

–       The North Coast with 128% (from 55,474 acres in 1981 till 87,726 in 2008)

–       The Central Coast with 100% (from 41,015 acres in 1981 till 8,600 in 2008)

–       And finally the county in which acreage grew the least; San Joaquin Valley by only 8,5% (up with 12,422 acres in 2008 added to the original around half of California’s total 278,935 wine acres in 1981)

In 1981 a mere 50% of all California wine grape acreage was located in district 14, the Southern Joaquin Valley. By 2008 this number had shrivelled to a little more than 33%.

In 2008 San Joaquin Valley was responsible for producing 61% of California’s total harvest but received only a little less than 27% of the revenue while the North Coast was responsible for producing well under 10% of the state’s total harvest and received 38%.

In 2008 Napa delivered 2,4 tons of Cabernet per acre while district 14 delivered 15,1

In 2008 the average price of a ton of Napa grown Cabernet Sauvignon went at USD$4,648. In district 14 the price was USD$363

It’s surely a better business to grow grapes in the much cooler North Coast than in San Joaquin Valley. But there’s more.

Even though one could be tempted to think that ‘climate change’ have made the San Joaquin Valley much hotter than it already was and thus make it even more thinkable that grapes grown here would be subject to end up as wines with high alcohol content, an important study (Bar-Am, 2012, in process (3)) tells that the average min. temperature rose by 2,5 °C from the 1930s to the beginning of the 21stCentury. These temperature changes have been most evident from around the 1990s. When we talk about a rise in alcohol levels, wines from the 1990s are also considered (rising sugar content in California wine became evident in the 1990s and throughout the first decade of the 21st century (3). So the Joaquin Valley, starting to show signs in the 1990s of having higher minimum temperatures, could well make one think that grapes are picked at higher °Brix levels. The story is very different.

Davis Professor Julian M. Alston and colleagues developed a calculation model taking into account wine grape production, quality, yields and other parameters such as a grower’s variable profit per acre of wine grapes depending on district and more, to examine the reasons behind rising sugar content in wine grapes.

What they found was that it doesn’t seem as growers of wine in the San Joaquin Valley wish to exceed the tax ceiling that hits wines containing more than 14% alcohol. Maybe because Vignerons in district 14, paying USD$ 363 per ton of Cabernet Sauvignon, simply cannot afford to pay the extra USD$ 0,5 per gallon that comes with higher alcohol content. So despite climate change, the idea of Alston and colleagues is that in the San Joaquin Valley they aim to pick at lower brix levels.

Equally very interesting, Alston and colleagues found that crushed grapes from the premium zones (Napa and Sonoma in particular) with higher brix levels sell at higher rates.

So growers in Napa and Sonoma, unlike growers in S.J. Valley, do wish to grow grapes with higher sugar content. At the end resulting in higher alcohol levels in the final wine.

 

Contributing factors, a tale of coincidences, or both?

If this reasoning explains why growers in premium counties wish to grow grapes with higher sugar content -they simply make more money- we still haven’t come to an understanding of why the high brix-level trend started in the first place. Was it Parker? Was it ‘climate change’? Was it the wine business’ lack of education on FMCG vs SlowWine?

By now it seems unlikely that ‘climate change’ is the cause, given the fact that growers in hot San Joaquin Valley (despite 2,5 °C average warmer minimum temperatures since the 1930’s) are capable of avoiding wines exceeding 14% abv.

A number of contributing factors to rising sugar levels in wine grapes at harvest have been suggested throughout recent years such as plantings at higher densities and new trellising systems. In the 1980s and 1990s Napa and Sonoma suffered a phylloxera infestation. The once highly recommended AxR rootstock was suddenly no longer resistant and came under attack by the louse resulting in Napa and Sonoma wine makers having to execute extensive replanting of vineyards (as well as new plantings of vineyards due to increased demand) (3).

Some wine makers point at the new rootstocks planted in the 1990’s being the cause of rising sugar levels, indicating that sugar ripeness arrives prior to phenolic matureness, resulting in longer hang times on the vines and thus higher alcohol levels in the final wine. Rising sugar content in California wine became evident in the 1990s and throughout the first decade of the 21st century. So the coincidence with new rootstocks in Napa and Sonoma that was carried out through the mid 1980s till mid 1990s, and the impressions from some wine makers that they reach sugar ripeness prior to phenolic matureness and thus hang on the vines for longer, could be a reason for why grapes started to be picked at higher °Brix levels, simply a coincidence.

And the reason why Parker started favour such wines, could simply be a coincidence of how he sincerely preferred FMCG over SlowWine.

Maybe his taste buds were not in conspiracy with the whole wine trade, manipulatively thinking of how ultra-premium and premium wine makers methods would inspire their colleagues in the lower segment to make basic *FMCG wines a-like, which would be able to appeal to US novice drinkers and thus make a lot of money. A thought and a topic also difficult to speculate in giving the fact that by 1995 the annual per-capita consumption was down at 1,77 gallons, novice drinkers had fallen steadily since 1986. The wave of American novice drinkers started off again in 1996. It is of course likely that these new comers, when buying/liking wine, could tend to follow the advice of wine critics like Parker. Today it shows that they actually did. Every 3 out of 4 bottles of Californian wine is sold in America, a lot of these wines have high levels of alcohol, so there’s a great market for high alcohol California wines

Since there are no studies suggesting exact evidence for why sugar levels have risen throughout the last 20+ years, I have come to think that the factors for rising sugar levels in many Californian wines are likely to due a series of coincidences starting with the phylloxera infestation in Napa and Sonoma in the 1980’s.

 

* “Basic FMCG wines, compared to ultra-premium and premium wines, which by the end of the day are of course also within the FMCG-category. Strictly speaking, so are fine wines even though they are surely also in the segment of “Luxury Goods”.

What I would like is a category in-between FMCG and Luxury Goods called SlowWine. I don’t think it already exist as a defined term (like FMCG and Luxury Goods)

  

Bibliography

(1)                 https://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/how-california-wines-have-changed

(2)                 https://www.winebusiness.com/wbm/?go=getArticle&dataId=45459

(3)                 http://www.wine-economics.org/aawe/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/Vol.6-No.2-2011-Too-Much-of-a-Good-Thing-.pdf

(4)                 https://www.wineinstitute.org/resources/statistics/article86

(5)                 http://www.decanter.com/wine-news/opinion/guest-blog/alcohol-in-bordeaux-wine-376309/

(6)              https://www.nass.usda.gov/Statistics_by_State/California/Publications/Grape_Acreage/

(7)                 Desimone, Mike., Jenssen, Jeff. Wines of California. Special Deluxe Edition, 2014. Canada: Sterling Publishing Co., Inc.

(8)                 Robinson, Jancis., Harding, Julia. Oxford Companion to wine. 4th edition, 2015. Slovakia: Oxford University Press

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