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The Abyss of the Alcohol Debate

By Karen MacNeil
January 10, 2015

The alcohol issue has become an abyss. Last fall, the critic Robert Parker went on a tear, and Jancis Robinson and Alder Yarrow among others responded. But I think the discussion continues to miss the real issue, which is NOT the merits of low alcohol wine versus high alcohol wine.

The real question, it seems to me, is: where in the world are the terroirs that allow grapes to just barely ascend into ripeness, instead of being on the downhill side of ripeness? Because once past that midline, the wine’s alcohol level begins to shoot skyward.

In certain places, I think wines can be made from grapes that are packed with flavor yet the grapes are still on the ascending side of ripeness. Among them: Rioja; Tuscany; parts of the Rhone; Austria; the Santa Ynez and Santa Maria Valleys; parts of Sonoma; British Columbia; Oregon; parts of Chile; even parts of Australia. And of course, Bordeaux in warm years; Napa Valley in cool ones. More than weather is undoubtedly at work, however, including the complex issues of 1. the efficiency of various yeast strains in converting sugars to alcohol; 2. newer, non-virused plant material that is efficient at photosynthesis; and 3. the complex role that rootstocks and clones play. I wish we heard from more winemakers talk about these things, rather than the general (and pointlessly simplistic) rehash suggesting it’s all just about wineries who want to get the attention of a single critic.