The Styles, They are a Changing….?

June 17, 2012

Without a hill to die on, some people would have no fun at all.

So it’s the “balanced” wine crowd now…alcohol levels are too high in California they say. Or maybe it’s the “the pendulum is swinging back” pack with their  synecdoche argument.

Alice Feiring, in a Newsweek article linked above,  stops short of contending that there is a full-scale movement toward lower alcohol wines in California , but one could be forgiven for intuiting that the small set of examples she gives is meant to stand for a(n as-yet-unseen) stampede.

So too with Raj Parr and Jasmine Hirsch founders of the In Pursuit of Balance group who, in their search for “balance,” have found a shibboleth waiting there all along. To be fair though, Mr. Parr admits that wines can be in balance at higher alcohol levels but that alcohol, fruit, wood, and tannin find “harmony” when they are co-equal.

California is a really sunny place, most of the time. Grapevines produce sugar via photosynthesis. Sugar in the grapes gets converted to alcohol when they’re crushed and exposed to yeast. If you read “ripeness” as higher sugar content in the fruit, California is nearly always going to have riper fruit than most European producers (the laws in Europe have something to do with this as well).

So, if warmer weather leads to higher alcohol wines, what do you think cooler weather does?

In the last 2008 and 2009, generally considered fairly temperate years, the degree-days in the Livermore Valley were off of their 30-year average by nearly 3%. And in 2010 and 2011, quite cold years, the same value was off the average by 17.9% and 13.4% respectively.

Sometimes a mystery looking for a solution has one staring in its face. Could it be that winemakers are not changing their style as much as they are just taking what Nature has given them?

2 Responses to “The Styles, They are a Changing….?”

  1. ncceo44 said

    I love reading about this low alcohol “movement” in ca wines. The fact is, this will all end unless producers favor the results from 2010 and 2011 wines vs previous, more “normal” vintages, and implement strategies going forward in the vineyard to achieve the other elements of ‘ripeness’ with lower sugars.

    I think vintage variance is more detectable in smaller wineries for obvious reasons, and wines made in 2010 and 2011 will be that much more detectable as different. Better? Worse? How do you answer that, there just different.

    This trend will only last as long as the weather stays cool. Could be 2012, or 2025, only time will tell.

    • Collin:

      It gets even more complicated when one considers that grapes don’t have one ripening curve. There are many. If one picks at lower sugar levels in a hot vintage expecting to get the same flavor results from a LONG, cool vintage like 2011, they’re in for a world of hurt and their fans are in for some pretty green wines. i think that looking for lower sugar from mature vineyards is a wiser choice than looking for the same from new sites.

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