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Wine Alcohol Levels…Thoughts

Whenever I am at a meeting, or having a beer with other winemakers, the discussion often has been about high alcohol wines. Sort of a should we, or should we not make them, coupled to an often unspoken mea culpa that seems to say “We have no choice but to make them”. If we do make them should we lower the alcohol using the latest technology? That type of response is a bit disingenuous as many winemakers make high alcohol wines because they want to make them, not because they have to make them.

Yes, there are conditions in the vineyard where, for a number of reasons, the fruit is not ripe, and it is necessary to let the fruit hang for a bit more time. The key word here is “bit”, and not a number of bits that add up to weeks. We make wine with fruit from a number of hot areas. One day it is a mere 88 degrees F, and the next it is 106 degrees F. In general, the fruit is physiologically ripe at about 24-25 Brix. For a number of reasons it is not picked, but left to hang on the vines. This allows the sugars to rise: Sometimes to 28-30 Brix, but does little to improve the fruit. It does cause higher sugar levels, and changes in the acid balance of the fruit, and subsequent must. Letting fruit hang until it’s “ripe”, i.e. overripe, is in our opinion, often the fault of the vineyard manager who is not paying attention, or the winemaker who is also not paying attention. Well, they may be paying attention, but to something other than making a wine with reasonable alcohol levels. It is obvious that regardless of the above, and in spite of the winemaker’s intentions, there are years when the weather works against both the grower and the winemaker, and nothing can be done, a priori, about the appropriate time to pick the fruit.

That said, local climate may cause rapid changes in fruit maturation, and winemakers and vineyard managers need to pay strict attention to the fruit – perhaps much more so than in more temperate climates. (Although there are different problems in temperate climates for sure!) Temperature variations – heat spells, followed by cooler days and nights, followed again by hot days are not unusual on the California Central Coast. Because of these variations, the fruit seems ripe based on pH, TA, and Brix data. Unfortunately, fruit may be deemed ripe based on these parameters when it is NOT ripe, and visa versa. Most winemakers know that relying only on the chemistry does not necessarily indicate that the time to pick is NOW. For instance, some samples brought to our laboratory have green seeds, skins that are tough, and juice that tastes green. This fruit is not ripe. What are solutions to this ripeness issue?

Letting the fruit hang longer is one. This allows the vine to concentrate the sugars, causes the acidity to decrease lower to values that approach 4.0. The resultant fruit, when picked, often jammy or stewed! These have been deemed non-issues by some winemakers, especially those who want to make high alcohol wines. The reason is that each molecule of sugar gives rise to about 2 molecules of alcohol plus a great deal of carbon dioxide. Thus, higher sugars equal higher alcohol. [It’s really a bit more complicated than this, but this article is not meant to be a course in wine chemistry.] How to deal with high Brix, low acidity wines made from overripe fruit is an issue. One thing that has become fairly prevalent is to look to enhanced technology to resolve problems of under ripe or overripe fruit. These technologies vary from simple addition of water, addition of acids like Tartaric and Malic acid, spinning the wines after fermentation is compete to remove alcohol – and a few other “things” – as well as the ever useful blending of wines. In our opinion, some wines have suffered as a result of these practices.

Is the use of these solutions noted above “wrong”? That’s not for me to say anymore than it is for me to say that genetic engineering is wrong, or that stem cell research may be problematic. What puzzles me is the practice of letting the fruit develop until it is no longer balanced, and then subjecting it to a variety of remedies that would not have to be used if the problem(s) were addressed in the field. To use a very crude analogy, it seems to me that these practices are not too different from those of a farmer who lets his or her truck run for a couple of hundreds of thousands miles, never takes it in for a service, and figures that it is easier to install a new engine rather than take the time to care for the truck along the way. Yes, that is one way to do it, but is it the best way? You decide and let me know, because I am stupid enough to service my old Ford every 3000-3500 miles!




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