Alcohol features increasingly in news and discussions of wine. Growers lament a trend toward accumulation of must weight outpacing arrival of felicitous flavors, even in self-described “cool climate” regions. Sugar-that age-old proxy for ripeness -is proving an unreliable, even false friend. Consumers, restaurateurs, and merchants plead for wines that aren’t overly alcoholic. One can pine for bygone days or, more usefully, attempt to discern and disentangle the climatic, plant physiological, viticultural, vinificatory, and sociological roots of rising alcohol. But it’s a statistical fact that wines of a mere 13% alcohol, let alone less, represent a small, shrinking minority.
Certain obvious routes to lower alcohol-picking earlier, leaving residual sugar, dealcoholization (via whatever method)-don't sit well. Wine lovers insist they want ripe flavors, while for many what counts as "ripetasting" encroaches on bands of the flavor spectrum long deemed overripe. Residual sugar has always (if unfairly) condemned any wine to a niche market. Despite widespread rhetorical allegiance to "minimal manipulation," low-alcohol advocates seem to be begging to have something done to their wines in the presshouse or cellar, so long as they can remain blissfully ignorant of what.
Some complainants focus on blood alcohol. But to compensate for a full percent, they need only defer for future enjoyment a glass of wine scarcely larger than the difference in volume between a standard 750ml bottle and the 700s that once prevailed Europe-wide, and whose demise this columnist recalls having been unattended by complaints.
More interesting, enlightened reasons for favoring diminished alcohol are aesthetic. Buoyancy, vivacity, refreshment, transparency, perspicuity, digestibilité (or Bekömmlichkeit, whose absence of English equivalent may be more than merely conceptually telling) -all are aided by, if not wedded to, low alcohol. Many wine lovers aver that alcoholic restraint renders wines flexible and fecund at table. Such virtues flourish especially in wines of 12% or less. But vast and diverse though the wine world is, any demand for such wines is evidently slight. And even the most ambitious or sanguine proponents of dealcoholization or watering envision solely lowering wines of 15-17% by a point or so.
Some traditional candidates have succumbed to increased must weights. Muscadets may still be thought of as light and refreshing but today are typically at 12-12.5% alcohol. Vin de Savoie from Jacquère, whose parochialism surely belies its potential appeal, has undergone similar inflation, mitigated increasingly by leaving behind awkward residual sugar. Austria's Wachau has held fast both to Federspiel as a concept and to its 12% upper limit, but the number of such wines has looked headed toward extinction-at least in export markets or by June of each year.
And then there's that place and grape renowned for welcoming residual sugar while canceling its obvious effects: German Riesling. In its late 19th-century heyday, Mosel Riesling especially was known for its levity and vivacity, as well as for being dry, and there are still those who demonstrate that such deliciously distinctive, dry-tasting wines can be achieved at as little as 10 or 11% ABV, the level routinely found in profoundly delicious centenarian exemplars from Kloster Eberbach. Play the sugar card on Mosel or Rhine, and options for levity and flavor synergy proliferate. Yet recent history reads like a war by the elite among German vintners and tastemakers on sugar and levity, with focus on dry, full-bodied Grosse Gewächse, and marginalization, if not elimination, of Kabinett on the agenda of most VDP regional branches. Holdouts report being told, in essence, '"Make these weak little wines if you must, but don't look for help to promote them." If levity's appeal turns viral, those who so admonish may prove the last men standing who believe bigger is better.
Successes in turning the rising tide of alcohol abound but are often hard won. Christian Ducroux-with amazing Regnié at 11.5% (and Beaujolais-Villages of 10.5%) farms high-elevation sites with dauntingly antediluvian rigor (just ask his neighbors-or his horse). And "antediluvian" doesn't begin to describe Corsica's Jean-Charles Abbatucci, who, among several projects most growers would call lunatic, lets vines sprawl unpruned to harvest his infectious Imperial red and rosé. Lucas and FX Pichler aren't the only growers of Riesling to have reclaimed entire sites -in their case, the breezy, table-like Burgstall-to get under-12% wine, for which they say Austrian thirst is rebounding. Ulrich Stein is among Moselaner to insist ancient ungrafted vines on steep slate slopes, as well as a nearly extinct art of pruning and binding them just so to single posts, are critical to complex, ripe-tasting dry Riesling of 10% alcohol-and that, even then, he must often pick twice and blend. (He might want-and might be shocked- to compare notes with Teutonic Wine Company in Portland, Oregon, who are pushing the envelope, to say the least.) Biodynamics, spontaneous ferments, and pruning prompted by hypotheses in plant physiology have all been adduced as alcohol ameliorants. Higher yields can help, too (not to mention be painless and boost bottom lines). What's clear is that it will take visionaries and experimentalists to meet a surge in demand for vinous levity.