The Heat is on the Palate

Robert Parker is the most influential wine judge in the world. His nose has been insured for a million dollars. In America, where he has the most power, customers will return a wine brought from a retail shop because they didn’t like it, and then return a week later to buy exactly the same wine because Parker rated it highly. If this influence sounds bad, it gets worse. Parker enjoys high alcohol Australian reds. He is unashamed to say this is his preference, and many wineries in Australia have been criticised for making wines in this style only to suit this one journalist.

In Spain the problem also exists (or existed). I remember being on a buying tour where each winery was proud to show their New World Style reds. These were big on oak and big on alcohol. They were heavy packed wines made to suit a market they thought was popular. Unfortunately for them we buyers didn’t enjoy the “Parker Wines”, we liked the old European styles with more subtly, and this is often used to explain a shift in the market.

Mr Parker no longer reviews Australian wines for his magazine, passing the role off to some guy with less celebrity. The result is that less Australian wines are being sold in America based on Parker’s points, and the high Australian dollar is also having an impact. Because of this more emphasis has been placed on local distribution, where shop buyers and reviewers prefer a less robust and less alcoholic wine. Combined with this is the view that local consumers also prefer lower alcohol wines – believing it means they can drink more or that it is healthier. For these reasons it seems the fad of making high alcohol wines has waned. The funny thing is that, by and large, this is not the true.

While it is true that some idiots chased high alcohol, for many producers their higher than historical alcohols was not cause by a fad. Instead it was the effects of climate variation. As example, fruit in Bendigo is now picked early to mid March. Ten years ago it was late April.

To get the ideal flavour extraction of a long growing season, such as when Bendigo harvest was in April and would produce wine of 12.5% alcohol, grapes are left to hang for as long as possible. In recent years drought and high temperatures have naturally reduced juice in the berry and this makes for a high sugar to juice ratio at fermentation. Winemakers hate high sugar levels (+14%) as this causes difficulties with fermentation and results in high alcohol wines that don’t age well. While these wines can impress when young, because of the obviousness of their flavour, they lack the nuance most winemakers desire.

The best way to reduce alcohol is to pick under-ripe fruit (which is what they do in France) and add sugar to get a fermentation happening (which is what they do in France). This is called chaptalisation. It is illegal in Australia.

The other way is to add water and dilute the sugar. This also dilutes flavour. It is also illegal in Australia.

One of the reasons alcohol levels are coming down is because label laws allow for a 0.5% margin of error. Therefore, while writing 14.5% alcohol on a bottle was marketable, wineries will now write 13.5%, when in fact the same winemaking conditions produce a 14% alcohol wine.

Beyond a 0.5% shift in alcohol the reduction could be because over the past ten years Australian winemakers have adapted to the climate, by watering the vineyards more to maintain juice and/or picking fruit on sugar level rather than historically desired ripeness or time of year.

It is unlikely that picking fruit in April will return soon, as currently that fruit will be shrivelled and most climate scientists believe worse conditions are coming. This is an effect that Parker and his love of 15% alc wines will not be able to stop.

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