How much alcohol is too much?

by Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)

jeff-smThe article “Round Table on Balancing Alcohol in California Wines” by W. Blake Gray which appears on Palate Press (http://palatepress.com/2012/05/wine/round-table-on-balancing-alcohol-in-california-wines/) is well worth the reading. Several winemakers opine on the subject of alcohol levels in wine. I’m not going to rehash that conversation, but instead will turn to some of the basic facts of winemaking as it relates to alcohol.

The fermentation process converts sugar in the grapes into alcohol. While not every fermentation converts sugar at exactly the same rate, it’s a basic fact of winemaking that the more sugar in the grapes, the higher the alcohol in the wine. So what are the options available to a winemaker to reduce the alcohol level in wine?

Obviously, first and foremost is to make wine with grapes with lower sugar levels. Unfortunately, this is sounds easier than it is. True, you can reduce the sugar levels in the grapes by picking earlier. But there is no real relationship between the sugar level of the grapes and the maturity (in terms of flavor) of the grapes. In practice, that means that picking grapes earlier for lower sugar levels often means picking them when they are unripe. Of course, two winemakers may have different views of what level of ripeness is optimal. One may prefer lighter, tighter flavors (he would pick earlier); another may prefer opulent rich flavors (he would pick later). But I don’t’ think very many winemakers would want green, bell pepper flavors to dominate in their wines. Yet that may be the flavor profile you get if you aim to pick solely with a lower alcohol level in mind.

Probably the best solution to this dilemma is to plant grapes that will ripen (flavorwise) without pushing the envelope on sugar (and resulting alcohol) levels. But this means growing grapes that aren’t necessarily what the consumer wants. Generally, if the choice is between what makes a lower alcohol wine, and what will sell, what will sell wins out every time.

The second thing a winemaker can do is add water. If you have a must that’s 27 Brix, and you add 10% water by volume, you’ll bring down the alcohol level of the final wine by about 10%. So what would be a 16% alcohol wine, for example, will now be a 14.4% alcohol wine. The problem with doing that is that you’ve diluted not just the sugar and alcohol, but everything else in the wine as well. So your flavors are 10% less concentrated.

It can be argued that over a certain level (I’ve heard 23 Brix, which is probably about right), the higher Brix levels are due to dehydration of the grapes. So adding back water simply brings the must to where it would be but for that dehydration. That’s all probably true, but if you’re trying to make a highly concentrated wine (as many winemakers are), the fact remains that the higher Brix grapes will make a more concentrated wine than a watered down must would.

One trick that the winemaker can utilize, that accomplishes the best of both worlds, is to remove a certain percentage of the juice immediately after crush and replace it with water (and usually tartaric acid as well, but that’s a different story). Since what makes the flavors in the finished wine is in the skins, removal of some of the juice before it’s absorbed the flavors of the skins, and replacing it with an equivalent amount of water, should leave you at the same flavor concentration, but lower alcohol.

Next week I’ll turn to the question of what alcohol level, if any, a winemaker should aim for.

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