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Written by Nikitas Magel   

Winemaking Witchery Series, Part 2: Alcohol Adjustment
Essays on the use of Chemical Additives & Enhancements in Winemaking

burning_alcohol_cropped"Hello, everyone, my name is Wine… and I'm… an alcoholic.  I have a problem and I've finally come to the point of admitting so.  It seems that not too long go, things were very different: higher alcohol made me into a more lush and lively personality, filled with exuberance and charisma — oftentimes, the life of the party, instantly likable and increasingly popular.  But what began as a good thing has gradually turned into an issue of deep concern.  I now see that inebriating myself to levels of 15%, even 16% alcohol only makes me boistrous and volatile, alienating customers and irritating critics.  The time has come for me to begin taking steps to cut down on my alcoholic excess and re-examine my priorities, ultimately seeking to live a life of better balance."

A little lighthearted humor?  Sure.  But, in all seriousness, wines, even just over the last decade or so, have seen significantly greater degrees of alcohol than ever before.  Why is this such an issue?  The reason is that high-alcohol wines (typically 15% or higher) are very likely to be experienced on the palate as:

  • Big — aggressive, perhaps even explosive, with intense fruit flavor
  • Hot — warm, often downright burning, and smelling of alcohol
  • Heavy — hefty in perceived weight and thick in apparent density

The question still remains, though: what's the problem?  Isn't bigger better?  Don't these intense qualities make for a more gratifying wine experience?  And the answer is no… because key to good winemaking is achieving balance.  Which is relevant in two ways.  First, the elements of the wine itself — fruit concentration, acidity, tannin, and alcohol — all need to be in harmony with each other, in order for that wine to have equilibrium.  Of course we all have different tastes and preferences, but balance is fundamental and without it, few would agree that a particular wine is good.  Secondly, the bigger the wine, the more challenging it is to compliment and match with food.  After all, the whole point of meal-pairing is to strike a synergy, which becomes impossible if the wine is overpowering.  And though there are those who enjoy big, brash, fruit-explosive wines, the fact is — and here's where I become irreverent in my wine snobbery — above a certain point, it's unlikely that a high alcohol wine will be in balance, and therefore can only remain inherently flawed.

Thankfully, consumers are growing ever more aware of and concerned about these issues.  And so high alcohol wines are coming increasingly under fire, as it were, compelling many producers to rethink some of their winemaking practices.  But before we look at how they're doing so, it's important to at least briefly mention how things got out of hand in the first place.  Somewhat recently, producers began to acknowledge that in order to achieve what's known as phenolic ripeness, it was necessary to allow grapes longer hang time, which leads to riper fruit.  This in turn makes for elevated sugar levels that, through the fermentation process, ultimately result in higher amounts of alcohol in the final wine.  Though primarily in the markets of New World countries — that, by no coincidence, are also where most wines of this style have historically been produced — many consumers, along with a very influential wine critic or two, have responded positively to elevations in alcohol, and to some degree continue to do so.  That positive reinforcement only perpetuated the practice.  Although perhaps not as direct a cause as vineyard management, global warming has also played a role in elevated alcohol levels in wine.  Hotter growing seasons all over the world means that increasingly more regions are harvesting riper grapes, and therefore producing more alcoholic wines.

Yet there is no magic number of alcohol percentage above which a wine is considered out of balance.   Through selective use of what's collectively known as corrective practices in the cellar (as opposed to preventative practices in the vineyard, which are discussed later) other components of the wine may be coaxed, enhanced, emphasized, adjusted so as to counterbalance a high level of alcohol.  Increasing acidity and fruit extraction are perhaps the first of these practices that come to mind.  But another way of dealing with high alcohol is to do so head-on: actively lowering its amount in freshly fermented wine, ostensibly leaving other components in tact.  This is called alcohol adjustment in winemaking.  And many producers do it — especially in areas where the effects of hot climate, if not otherwise unchecked, produce extremely ripe fruit.

Some of the techniques used in the cellar to adjust alcohol {footnote}James Halliday & Hugh Johnson, The Art & Science of Wine (London: Mitchell Beazley, 2006), 198.{/footnote}:

  • Reverse osmosis: pushes out alcohol, using a method of cross-flow filtration; expensive, though widely used in California{footnote}Winemakers use reverse osmosis at other times to remove water, so as to concentrate the grape must in the interest of making more intensely flavored wines.{/footnote}
  • Spinning cone: pulls out alcohol, using a method based on centrifuge and vacuum
  • Air-venturing: evaporates alcohol by blasting or breathing air into the wine
  • Adding water: slightly diluting the alcohol (and, of course, all other components of the wine); illegal in most regions outside of California


 

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