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Alcohol... Is the Pendulum Swinging?

The pendulum is swinging back and the movement toward lower alcohol seems well founded whether your intention is for more elegant terroir driven wines or simply the ability to enjoy an extra glass without fear of intoxication.
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Until recently (over the last 30 or so years) no one felt it necessary to discuss the level of alcohol (abv) in a wine. It was always assumed the abv was correct and in balance depending on the normal winegrowing and winemaking conditions of the vintage and growing area.

But that all changed with the advent of the 100-point scale and the evolving market importance of wine critics such as Robert Parker and others in the late 1970s and 1980s. Styles began to change from the classic Old World (usually 12 to 13 percent abv or lower) to the often bigger riper interpretations of the New World with alcohols often in the 15 percent plus range.

And as the critical review became more crucial in the dramatic growth and importance of the US market, many Old World producers from a wide range of winegrowing areas also began to adopt this new trend for super-ripeness and higher alcohol. Result: higher alcohol became the norm.

But has the pendulum begun to swing back toward lower alcohol wines demonstrating more aromatic and flavor appeal? The conventional wisdom seems to indicate this is indeed happening in both the New and Old Worlds.

Due largely to its cooler climate and indigenous soils the higher alcohol wave never really hit areas such as Germany. We still find 8 to 9 percent alcohols in their most appealing wines that many see as the "poster children" for the low alcohol movement. However, this was not completely true of other classic growing areas such as Bordeaux and Burgundy where many producers joined the wave of New World style with higher alcohol capturing the critics' attention and higher scores.

In 2009, highly respected sommelier and vintner Rajat Parr Co-founded, " In Pursuit of Balance" (IPOB) to elicit the support of other Pinot Noir producers in adopting vineyard and winemaking protocols that lead to more balanced lower alcohol wines. Today IPOB and its 33 member wineries host tastings and educational events in key markets around the world to inform the trade and consumers alike of their goal in returning to wines that complement the dining experience.

New Zealand is on the cutting edge of pursuing lower alcohol (and lower calorie) wines by establishing a seven-year research and development program with an investment of $5.5 million matched by a similar contribution from participating wineries. The goal is to produce quality wines in the 8 to 9 percent range. Primarily directed at their home market and the UK (where lower alcohol wines are a growing segment), this project is aimed at positioning NZ as a prime source of high quality low alcohol wines for the younger and growing health conscious population.

Alcohol adds a sense of richness and mouthfeel while enhancing the tannins in red wines but in excess can also lend a perception of sweetness on the palate and heat on the finish. Minimizing alcohol content can be accomplished in the vineyard with varying growing practices and early picking. Alcohol can be reduced in the winery by adding water to the fermenting juice (legal in California and some other growing areas) or removing it through a variety of mechanical operations such as reverse osmosis and use of a spinning cone.

It is universally accepted that alcohol is an important vinous component that lends many positive attributes to the finished wine. The current movement in recognizing lower levels is also focused on maintaining quality and character of the growing areas while delivering a wine of superior balance with greater aromatic appeal and flavors not masked by over-ripeness and resulting higher alcohol.

Many studies have also pointed to an increasing awareness of the dangers of high alcohol wines and their intoxicating effect. The difference in just 2 percent abv (e.g from 12.5 to 14.5 percent) is far more that it appears. That 2 percent is really an increase of 16 percent in alcohol so your intake drastically increases with every glass you consume.

The pendulum is swinging back and the movement toward lower alcohol seems well founded whether your intention is for more elegant terroir driven wines or simply the ability to enjoy an extra glass without fear of intoxication.