Subscriber login Close [x]
remember me
You are not logged in.

End of the high life?

Published:  23 July, 2008

Alcohol, as it is elsewhere in the world, is a very hot topic here. Everybody's acutely aware that there's more of it in Australian red wines these days than there used to be.

Not a little bit more, either, but much more: a report late last year by the Australian Wine Research Institute showed that the average alcohol content of red wines rose from 12.3% in 1984 to 13.9% in 2004.

One of the common arguments in the high alcohol debate is that strong, beefy wines are 'what the consumer wants'.

And yet, when I bemoaned the increasing incidence of unbalanced, hot-tasting, 15%-plus reds in my weekly national newspaper column recently, I was inundated with emails and letters from readers, 95% of whom said they couldn't agree more and would much rather be drinking wines at 12.5 or 13% than 15 or 16%.

Apart from winemakers intentionally (if, perhaps, misguidedly) picking later, there are other theories as to why Australian reds are stronger now than they were.

Some blame more efficient new strains of cultured yeasts: Geoff Merrill, for example, told me he bled off the juice from some Sangiovese for ros this year and used R2 yeast, but used a different, less-efficient yeast on the remaining must - and the red wine finished up a whole 1% less alcoholic than the pink.

Some point to the recent string of hot vintages ripening grapes more quickly than expected: one Clare Valley winemaker told me that during the final stages of the 2005 season, for example, he had 3,000 tonnes-worth of red grapes shoot up from 13 to 15.5 baum in a week - which can catch even the most well-prepared winery unawares.

The situation has also been exacerbated in the past three or four vintages by wineries cancelling large-scale contracts, forcing growers to leave their grapes ripening on the vine for longer before (hopefully) harvesting.

I heard a story this year of a grower caught out this way, who eventually picked his Shiraz at 20.5 baum, fermented it out to 16.5% alcohol and managed to sell it to Casella, who easily lost it in the surging sea of Yellow Tail. This is but one of many, many stories.

Not surprisingly, the Memstar alcohol adjustment machine patented by Wine Network (Australia's largest industry consultancy) has been in great demand in recent years.

Memstar operator Blair Duncan says he has taken his machine to 45 wineries, big and small, since the beginning of the year, with one major client in the Barossa needing 1.6 million litres to be put through the process - during vintage.

And we're talking fairly drastic adjustments here, too: parcels of wine (sometimes very large parcels) at 16.5% alcohol are not, he says, uncommon.

Duncan acknowledges that Memstar is very much a commercial operation: the usual reason for alcohol reduction, he says, is to bring a wine under 15 or 14% to avoid being slugged with higher taxes in export markets.

But he also says an increasing number of winemakers are turning to Memstar for what he calls the 'sweet spot' service.

Initially, Duncan will take a small amount of the client's wine at, say, 14.5% alcohol, and bring it back to, say, 12.5%. He then back-blends in increments of 0.1% and presents the wines to the client for assessment - 20 glasses of the same wine, each at slightly higher concentrations of ethanol.

I went through one of these tastings and it was remarkable how such slight differences in alcohol so clearly affected mouthfeel and aromatics.

More remarkable was how four people tasting the wine independently concluded that one glass - at 13.5% - was noticeably better than the others.

The idea is that once the client finds their preferred 'sweet spot', this alcohol percentage can literally be dialled up in the machine and the whole batch can be brought down to the desired percentage.

Wine Network's blurb is enticing: 'It is common to find that there may be more than one sweet spot for a given wine, and each of these could exhibit quite different style characteristics.

For example, a Chardonnay at 14.2% may display rich, "New World" qualities, but at 13.6% the flavours may be more subtle and "Burgundian" and at 12.8% possibly "Chablis-like".'

Whether you think this is a brilliant new tool for the winemaker to expand quality parameters or frightening Frankenwine technology that will lead to even more slap-dash viticultural decisions in the future ('hey, we can always fix it up later!') depends, I suppose, on your philosophical standpoint.

For more on Memstar, check out