Article By: Aimsel Ponti
Whatever your position in this industry - wholesaler, retailer, restaurateur - it's likely that you see bottles of wine on a daily basis. But when was the last time you took a close look at the alcohol content listed on the side of a bottle, particularly one from California? It just might surprise you. As California wineries continue to produce big, hearty wines, alcohol content is steadily climbing. This increase is due to an elevated "hang time" of grapes that is extended so as to produce a fuller, richer flavor. This may sound well and good but it is not without a catch. The longer the grapes are left on the vine, the more sugar they generate. During fermentation this translates into higher alcohol content, sometimes upwards of a staggering 18% (the average falls between 12 and 14%). Although a fair number of these potent wines make it to market, some vineyards are choosing to add water (a practice known as "watering back") to their wines in order to keep their alcohol levels in check. Under normal circumstances, watering down any type of alcohol is considered a grave sin, but in this case it's an increasingly common, and arguably effective, practice.
So, is this all a big deal? Although some in the industry say no, others raise the caution flag on a number of fronts. It can certainly be argued that vintners should be able to do what they need to, without scrutiny, to achieve the desired results - whether by adding water, or performing scientific wizardry that sounds like it's out of an advanced chemistry class. Conversely, there are long-established standards and regulations in the wine industry that cannot simply be ignored or sidestepped. The question is: are these winemaking techniques affecting the industry -either positively or negatively - and ultimately, the consumer? A variety of experts, from vintners to importers have weighed in with their thoughts and commentary on these two growing trends.
IS the WEST STILL the BEST? Although high alcohol wines and watering back techniques exist around the world, the current focus is mainly on California. Noted wine expert Leslie Sbrocco, author of Wine for Women: A Guide to Buying, Pairing and Sharing Wine, had this to say on the subject of some West Coast wines' alcohol content: "Many of them are too high, but California is not the only culprit. It's simply not enjoyable to drink, you feel like you've been kicked in the head." Sbrocco also notes that when grapes are ultra-ripe the wines seem to lose their distinctiveness. She does however offer a solution of sorts. "You can put off having higher alcohol levels if the wine is balanced and well made. I find myself gravitating towards wine styles with lower alcohol," says Sbrocco. Bill Russell, a winemaker from Westport Rivers Vineyard in Westport, Massachusetts, offered a viewpoint concerning regions. "The dilemma is that we've always, as American consumers, bought into the idea that the perfect place to grow grapes is California. It's a good place to grow grapes; the perfect places are few and far between," says Russell. He also opines that in California the grapes need hang time in order to develop flavor in the fruit and lipins in the tannins. Of course, this begs the question: Should wines be grown in a region where they need to actually be overripe to get the desired flavor?
ADDING WATER: SIN or SENSIBLE? The practice of adding water to wine during fermentation is not new but it is generally done in a "hush hush" manner. Although it's being used for balance purposes, it still has a negative stigma attached to it akin to watering down bourbon in order to cheat the customer. In California it is mainly the younger, innovative winemakers who tend to be vocal, outspoken proponents of industry acceptance. Also, wine is taxed according to how much alcohol is in it so there's some financial motivation. So what is the expert take on the issue of adding water to wine? Bill Russell doesn't see any problem: "I think if the end product is good and that's what they need to do then you know - it's just water - it's not like they're adding the flavor," he says. Author Leslie Sbrocco is also fine with vintners adding water, provided it doesn't affect the ultimate taste and quality - though she does think it's worth keeping tabs on. "It's a fairly normal practice but it gets to be a bad habit if winemakers' mentality is that they'll use the overly ripe fruit and then water it back," she says. Sbrocco points out that this can lead to a really unbalanced product. Neil Deininger, the New England Regional Manager for TGIC Wine Importers questions the practice. "I certainly don't think it's the best thing to do, I think less interference is a better thing," he says, adding that he was a little surprised to hear California wine producers are doing it. On the retail front, John Stephanski from Bauer Wines on Newbury Street says that, although he hasn't heard much in the way of adding water to wine, he does have something to say on the subject: "It seems that winemakers have at their disposal a variety of techniques to modify or alter their final outcome. I understand that historically winemakers have sometimes added water to reduce high levels of acidity". He also offered up a quick history lesson and says that according to the Romans, it was considered downright barbaric not to add water to one's serving of wine.
THE LONG ARM of the LAW Wine making is quite regulated in California, which comes as no surprise. A visit to the California Department of Health Services website paid dividends in the form of Title 17, Chapter 5, Article 14 of the California Administrative Code which is "Wine Standards and Prohibited Practices". This pertains directly to the usage of both sugar and water. It states that: "no water in excess of the minimum amount necessary to facilitate normal fermentation may be used in the production or cellar treatment of any grape wine." Essentially, it is a solution for "stuck fermentation", a term for what happens when the sugar doesn't convert to alcohol. Although the decision to add water is left to the discretion of the winemaker, it's generally only advocated in situations where the vintage is at risk due to the sugar levels. As to whether this is being seriously regulated, or for that matter enforced, is hard to say. Research didn't reveal any hard evidence either way - meaning it is either flying underneath the radar or has not provoked any whistle blowing. In Europe adding water is considered to be nothing less than fraud and is quite illegal, although many winemakers do it out of necessity to save their vintages.
CUSTOMER COMMENTS So what's the chatter on a retail level about alcohol content? Stephanski with Bauer Wines weighed in. As far as the overall subject of alcohol content in wine, he does note a small level of concern from his customers and estimated that perhaps 1O% of them do inquire about it. "These people will specifically ask if there is an alcohol flavor and what the percentage is. Some consumers will dismiss certain varietals and wine producing regions," he says. According to Stephanski, Zinfandel, for example, has historically contained a high level of alcohol that typically adds to the appeal and uniqueness. But he also sees the downside, saying, "As these levels increase in some wines, it is overpowering the fruit this creating an unbalanced wine that is unrestrained, clunky and impossible to match with any food." Some consolation can be taken in the fact that once the bottle is opened on a high alcohol content wine there is a certain amount of settling in which the alcohol flavor, to use Stephanski's term, "blows off". "But once a consumer has an initial taste they sometimes can't move on," he adds. Time will have to tell if consumers will start asking more not only at their local wine shop but also in a restaurant setting before making their decision of what wine to have.CLOSING THOUGHTS The issue is a multi-faceted one. While it is not at a critical point just yet, it doesn't seem likely to stop anytime soon. "The industry needs to be aware that this could become a greater issue if the alcohol levels continue to increase," says Stephanski. "As soon as it begins to interfere with people enjoyment of wine then there is a problem. People want approachable, easy to enjoy wines, but overall, they must be balanced," he surmises. According to Deininger, people drink their wine of choice and the amount of alcohol it contains really isn't taken into consideration all that much. As for the practice of adding water during fermentation to achieve the desired results is becoming more prevalent. The bottom line will always be taste. However it is clearly worth keeping an eye on alcohol levels as the "hangtime" of grapes out west continues. The Golden State certainly offers plenty of long days and sunshine but one has to wonder, could it be too much of a good thing? There is one thing we can all agree on and that is the simple desire for a good glass of wine to enjoy at our table that won't put us under it.
THE OTHER END of the SPECTRUM THE LIGHTER SIDE of WINE
Perhaps you're aware of the new kid on the block vying for a spot, even a small one, on the playground. Beringer's White Lie, Early Season is an early season chardonnay that was created by, and is targeted to, women. It uses early season grapes and claims to be a crisp, fruity wine that is low in both calories and alcohol content and is geared for everyday drinking. I checked in with Leslie Sbrocco to get her thoughts on whether White Lie had the makings of an official trend. "I don't see this as a trend. There are wines naturally low in alcohol so it's just a matter of seeking out those if you want substantially lower alcohol (8 to 9%)," she says. Sbrocco also forecasts a future where things will level out. "I see the trend as wines ultimately coming back into balance and settling, maybe not into the old standard of 12 % but hopefully lower than the highs of today." Sbrocco is also well aware of the fact that the customers will be the driving force. "We'll get to the point where alcohol is overdone and consumers will demand less. It's already happening, so we'll see." While TGIC Wine Importers' Neil Deininger wouldn't personally buy this wine he does note that there is likely a market for it. John Stephanski with Bauer Wines is aware of White Lie but questions its long-term success. "I'm sure there is a segment of the market that seeks this out, just like the people who are looking for low carb beer and spirits. However I've only been asked about this wine on one or two occasions," he says. He also thinks it may be a novelty and most people either don't care enough about alcohol content or will take the time to ask or look at the label. Check out White Lie for yourself at www.whiteliewines.com.