Who Wants High Alcohol Wines?

By my reckoning and perspective, both personal and from within the industry, the biggest issue facing the wine business is the emergence of high alcohol wines as the norm.

This was why I included two questions about them this blogs recent "Tough Wine Questions" survey. I could, and probably should, have included more questions on the the topic.

If it’s not clear, I should spell out my general objections to the trend that is higher and higher alcohol levels in wines.

1. I can’t drink as much wine when the alcohol level is 14.5%
2. Hi brix (leading to high alcohol) appears to diminish the more interesting nuances in wines
3. Hi brix (leading to high alcohol) appears to diminish terroir characteristics in wine
4. Hi brix (leading to high alcohol)  seems to come with higher pH which  reduces aging potential.

I don’t think it’s worth discussing whether or not alcohols have risen over the past decade or so. It’s a objective fact. Survey takers realized this too as 86.1% said they have seen the increase.

Yet, it seems my objection to high alcohol wines is a minority view. Of those taking the survey who were asked to identify how they react to these wines, 54% said they "didn’t mind" or they "liked" high alcohol wines. Thirty-six percent of respondents said their either "don’t like" or "don’t buy" high alcohol wines. As a side note, 8% of respondents said their best description of how they react to high alcohol wines is "they are hurting the wine industry".

It is very interesting to note that those who seem to approve or not mind higher alcohol wines are also much more forgiving of numerical wine ratings than the average survey taker. They are more likely to believe numerical ratings are helpful in choosing a wine to buy and that numerical ratings are making wine more accessible to more people.

One of the common reasons given for the rise of higher alcohol wines is that high alcohol tends to be associated with the kinds of bigger, more extracted wines embraced by wine critics.

There are in fact a number of reason that conspire to bring more high alcohol wines to market today.

1. More efficient yeasts
2. New clones
3. Better canopy management
4. Fewer virused vines in the vineyard

These reasons however don’t address the change in style that has overcome the industry and why. This is a complicated matter that has much to do with ratings, true and false perceptions of why high ratings are given to high extract wines, the way wine is sold at retail, and the experiences of the newer wine drinkers that came into the fold in the 1990s.

Yet there is no question that those in the industry do seem to be sparking a backlash against high alcohol wines. There is certainly anecdotal evidence found in various articles on the subject and in talking to those in the industry.

And in the survey just ended here, those who identified themselves as "in the wine industry" are much more likely to say that they don’t like or don’t buy high alcohol wines. They are also more likely to say that wine ratings are of no use in helping to choose a wine and that numerical ratings hurt the wine industry.

The question is will this industry trend that seems to be moving against high alcohol wines spill
over into the minds of the consumer. I have no good answer for this question.

7 Responses

  1. Travis Wilson - November 28, 2006

    This survey yields an incredible amount of information. While the information is terrific I do not really know what to do with this information. I am one of those who does not life high alcohol wines, preferring the 12.5 to 14 percent wines to those of the California ilk of 14.5 to 16 percent. Again, interesting, but what do we make of this, some sort of independent analysis would be interesting, specifically yours. Don’t be afraid of stereotypification, we trust you.

  2. Wine Boy! - November 30, 2006

    Tom. What’s your thought on the table wine definition of wine?

  3. tom - November 30, 2006

    You mean the 14% level? It’s clearly an arbitrary standard tha was mean to punish beverages, or exact a fee, that delivered potentially more intoxication to the drinker.
    I don’t know the history of the 14% tax bracket , as it were. Now that you bring it up I’d like to know more about that history.
    And I wonder if there are any implications for that system given that 14.5% alcohol is clearly the new 13%.
    I can’t imagine any changes being made. More taxes are being brought in as wine creeps higher in alcohol content.

  4. Wine Boy! - December 3, 2006

    I just brought it up, becaause we (Tularosa Vineyards) use the Table Wine (alcohol statement) on all of our wines. I think it’s meant to punish higher alchohol wines. I just think it’s a weird place to cut off the tax classes. Why not 15% or 14.5%? I made a Merlot once that was 14.2% alc., but had to pay the higher tax and relabel the wine. It’s also funny that the margin of error (or correctness) is lower when you go into the higher class. Stylistically, I only care about the flavor as I have tasted 16% alchohol wines that were notably “hot” and some that tasted spot on even with the higher a.c. levels.
    Why not just try to make a more balanced wine within the Table Wine category? And why are so many wineries afraid to use Table Wine on the bottle?

  5. Paul Gregutt - December 11, 2006

    Please see my May 2006 cover story “High Octane Wine – How Much Alcohol is Too Much?” in the Wine Enthusiast (www.winemag.com) for some of the earliest and most thorough coverage of this important trend.
    Paul Gregutt
    Seattle Times
    Wine Enthusiast

  6. teen alcohol treatment - May 19, 2009

    For me the lesser the alcohol content of wine is much better. thanks for the post.

  7. Pato - September 14, 2010

    I make wine, and I do not know how to control the alcohol level. My wine taste excellent and its has a very good flavor, but the high alcohol is my problem.
    How can I correct this.

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