29 April 2008

Turning up the heat

[alcohol removal system © Vinovation]I know I promised a longer, more proactive post on the issue of alcohol in wine, but this will have to do for now. A while back, blogger (and winemaker) Craig Camp entered the fray, claiming that alcohol is not the problem. It’s a fine post, and to the extent that (as he argues) elevated alcohols are a primarily a symptom of a different cause – that of ever-escalating ripeness at harvest – he’s right. But he goes awry here:

The issue should not be the alcohol level of the wine, but if the wine tastes balanced and still reflects the 3 V's of great wine: variety, vineyard and vintage. It is here that higher alcohol wines often fail, but the reason is not the alcohol level itself. The faults often blamed on high alcohol come not from alcohol itself, but the fact that the grapes were harvested super-ripe, which is just another word for overripe.

Camp makes one of the same errors – well, let’s instead call it a misstep – that Alder Yarrow made in conflating these issues. It’s absolutely true that alcohol levels are inextricably linked to the modern search for concentration and more powerful fruit. But what’s not true is that the flaws are inseparable from an organoleptic standpoint. Sure, some consumers may not be able to tell the difference between prune-like fruit and alcohol. But I can, Camp can, and I suspect most competent tasters can…especially once they’ve been trained to do so.

The work of controversial consultant Clark Smith (of Vinovation) rather neatly demonstrates that alcohol is a separable component. Tasting the same wine at a long series of alcohol levels (one of Vinovation’s techniques is the removal of alcohol using reverse osmosis), tasters regular come to the same conclusion as Smith: wines simply taste different at different alcohols, even when that variable is isolated…and not in a way described a simple bell curve, either. Instead, tasters find appealing but contrasting qualities at several different alcohol levels, which Smith calls “sweet spots.” (For more on this subject, I recommend the combo issue 73+74 of Ed Behr’s The Art of Eating, in which one finds a profile of Smith and his methods.)

So if alcohol is a separable variable, it makes sense, when opining on the organoleptics of finished wine, to treat it both in its proper context (as an outcome of ripeness) and as a unique, discernable component. In other words, to borrow and recompose a quote from legendary winemaker Henri Jayer: if a wine tastes too alcoholic, it is too alcoholic.

Earlier, I noted that competent tasters can identify alcohol in wine. Certainly, most successful winemakers and oenologists are trained tasters; often, they’re some of the most incisive tasters one will ever meet, because their jobs depend on their palate and decisions made from the information it provides. So why do they produce wines that others identify as too alcoholic?

There can be only three answers. One is that they simply don’t notice it; this is what’s known as “cellar palate,” though the term is usually applied to winemakers who use more and more wood because constantly tasting wine from within fresh new wood renders the palate numb to its effects, like a chef who loses her sensitivity to salt. But as I noted before, winemakers are, as a group, very good at tasting the components and potentials in their grapes, must, and wine. So while it’s possible that some can’t – certainly there’s plenty of flawed wine out there, wine that suggests not all winemakers are good tasters – it seems unlikely that most can’t.

The other two are related: either it’s what they, themselves, like, or they think it’s what the customer wants. On this dual justification, a suggestive passage from the above-referenced The Art of Eating article:

A recent Vinovation client, tasting through his de-alcoholized wines, said of one sweet spot, “This is the wine I’d like to make,” and of another, “This is the wine I have to make.”

Though some will vociferously deny it, winemakers can and do make wine for the market. And not just the mass-market brands, who transparently do make wines to please popular tastes, and for sensible economic reasons. Among the artisanal set, I don’t think that most subject their palates to those of their customers, but some certainly do (at least in part); many have admitted it to me and others, and some have even allowed the notion to appear in print.

Once this objection is dismissed, discussion of this issue usually devolves into an argument about whether or not people truly prefer high-alcohol wines. I think this misses the point. It’s not necessary to demonstrate that everyone, or a majority, prefers these wines; it’s necessary to demonstrate that an audience for such wines exists. And obviously, it does, else the wines would not sell.

Where does the preference come from? I think two suggestions are relevant here, though this is speculative. First, it’s useful to look back into history. At one time, many wines had to be fortified for stability, as the biochemistry necessary to achieve stability by other means either didn’t exist or was still nascent. Wine was popular then, which demonstrates that people can and do embrace wines in which the alcohol is a prominent, or even dominant, component. And second, it’s helpful to understand where many modern wine drinkers come from, especially in the New World. Not from long traditions of cooler-planet, lower-alcohol wines made in the image of those consumed by their ancestors, but from the world of spirits. It’s no surprise that, for this crowd, wines with “extra” alcohol would hardly bother them, but in fact would rather appeal to their previous organoleptic paradigm. We see this being replicated more obviously in the world of microbrews, with the current fetish for ales aged in used whiskey casks that rather overwhelm the beer in favor of spirituous and woody aromas. (I wonder if some of the modern love of new wood is not also related to a move from wood-aged spirits to wine?)

And on the part of winemakers? What so frequently gets forgotten in discussions of alcohol is that, as I’ve noted before, alcohol is the primary component of body, and thus a major contributor to mouthfeel. The “size” of a wine is directly correlated with the amount of alcohol it carries. Whether winemakers are crafting oversized (compared to those of yesteryear) wines because they like them or because they think the market demands them – or both – is irrelevant; what matters is that, of all the ways to manipulate a wine’s overall heft, alcohol is the least problematic. The equation is simple and, in the absence of adverse weather, replicable: let the grapes hang and the sugars rise, and the alcohol will follow.

That services like Vinovation exist is, in itself, evidence that unchecked alcohol is not considered a universal good by warm-climate winemakers. It’s also evidence that there exist winemakers who recognize the problematic relationship between the different forms of ripeness in grapes grown in such climates, in which sugar ripeness can race ahead of other, more crucial elements. De-alcoholization is a technical solution to a natural problem: grapes planted in places where a balanced wine (in the opinion of the winemaker employing such techniques) cannot be made with the raw materials nature provides. In this, it’s no different from chaptalization, though it addresses the opposite problem: excess, rather than insufficient, alcohol for the winemaker’s purposes. (Of course, winemakers are in no more agreement on the definition of “balance” than wine drinkers are, which is why not everyone de-alcoholizes who could, and not everyone pushes their grapes to the limits of their yeast’s abilities even though their terroirs would allow them to.)

In any case, I hope I’ve demonstrated that while alcohol is a subset of a larger philosophical debate on ripeness, it is also, by itself, a mutable and thus isolatable component of wine.

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