The SF Chronicle Gets Serious About Boozy Numbers
First, let's admit this: It's the alcohol in wine that makes the beverage of serious interest to human beings. And with this said, we may as well tell the whole truth and admit that it's the effect of alcohol on our mind and bodies that make this substance and, through it, wine of interest to human beings.
Second, let's congratulate the San Francisco Chronicle's Wine & Food staff and Jon Bonne, the Wine Editor, for taking the step to print alcohol levels on their reviews of wine. When you think about it, you start to wonder why the Chronicle and most other wine reviewers rarely ever did this as a matter of course.
The reasons for putting alcohol levels on reviews of wine are numerous. A couple of them should be obvious: For those who want to experience the fuller effects of alcohol, knowing which wines have higher alcohol content is important. For those not wanting to experience as much of the effects of alcohol, they too would like to know the alcohol level of different wines.
Jon Bonne's explanation for why the Chronicle has decided to put alcohol levels on their reviews of wine is comprehensive and an interesting read. Bonne gets us through the winding path that is the debate over the importance and effects of alcohol in wine, including the government's various tax levels for wines of different alcohol levels.
One thing is absolutely true about wine and alcohol: the amount of alcohol in wine has been steadily increasing from the 1970s forward to today. The fact of the matter is that a Cabernet from Napa or Sonoma from the 1975 vintage was as likely to be below 13% alcohol as it was to be above 13% alcohol. Today, finding a Cabernet from Napa or Sonoma that is below 14% alcohol is very difficult.
The upshot of alcohols being higher in our wines today are various:
1. Because alcohol imparts a sweetness to wine, our red wines tend to be sweater today than they were a couple decades ago. In many cases, noticeably so. There's nothing wrong with this at all—if you like your table wine sweet.
2. Many people are of the impression that higher alcohol wines tend to diminish the partnership between wine and food. I agree.
3. Many red wines, particularly Cabernets and Merlots, tend to have higher pH levels along with higher alcohol levels. This can result in a soft and velvety mouthfeel when they are young, yet they are generally not thought to age very well with high alcohol and high pH.
As for why wines have increased in alcohol, one thing is clear: There is no reason to suggest that forces outside the influence of grapegrowers and winemakers account for the higher alcohols in today's wines. It's a stylistic choice made by the growers, winemakers and wine industry in general that seems to have been appreciated by critics and wine drinkers alike.
There is talk of a backlash against higher alcohol in wines. There are pockets of professionals who believe the 14.5 and 15.5 alcohol levels are detrimental to the drink and to its future. I dont' see a big backlash. I think most drinkers in their 30s, 40s and even 50s have become accustomed to this level of alcohol in their wines. Maybe the backlash will emerge fully charged and ready to demand lower alcohol in wines. Don't count on it.
However, it does appear you can now count on the San Francisco Chronicle wine department to tell the whole and important truth about the wines they review and highlight. The question is whether others such as the various wine publications, wine blogs, and wine writers at other newspapers will follow suit? I hope so.