The Elephant in the Room: Alcohol

I’m writing this post on New Year’s Eve, the night when many folks go out to celebrate, have a little too much to drink and end up “seeing pink elephants,” as the saying goes. It’s a good moment to think about alcohol in wine.

Pink Elephants

Alcohol is the [red, white or pink] elephant in the room for many wine enthusiasts. We know that wine contains alcohol and that alcohol levels having been rising in recent years (more about this later). We know that alcohol has lots of negative social and health effects. We know that anti-alcohol sentiments are rising around the world, even in France, where  wine is deeply embedded in the national culture. But, like the metaphorical pachyderm, we pretend we don’t see these facts and try to ignore them.

But maybe it’s time to sober up. Wine enthusiasts have for a long time been comforted by the French Paradox finding that moderate consumption (defined by health experts as 2-3 glasses a day) of red wine is beneficial to your health. We need to remember that the finding that wine can be good for you is actually the result of a delicate balancing act. The alcohol in wine has few positive and many negative health consequences. The resveratrol in wine and its antioxidant compounds generally have positive effects, especially when wine is consumed with food.

So it’s really a balancing act of pluses and minuses in terms of your health. And balance is the key, too, regarding wine’s social effects. Excess consumption of wine as for any alcoholic beverage is a real concern. Wine’s reputation as the drink of moderation has given us comfort in this regard. Wine drinkers aren’t as likely to go overboard as those who consume beer or spirits, we tell ourselves. Thus do we convince ourselves that wine doesn’t have an alcohol problem.

Zinfandel Rising

But maybe that is changing, both in terms of social attitudes towards wine (see France) and in terms of the wine itself.

Alcohol levels in wine, especially red wine, have been creeping up for many years. Twenty years ago the Zinfandels I bought averaged about 12 – 12.5 percent alcohol. Try to find one with less than 14 percent alcohol today. There are some out there, but most are 14.5  and even 15+ percent, which is about a 20 percent increase.

If you take the health issue seriously, this reduces your “moderate” consumption rate from 2-3 glasses to maybe 1-2 per day.

It also obviously affects the taste and texture of the wine and not always in a good way. The problem used to be that grapes were harvested too soon, so some European AOC rules provided more prestigious designations for wines with higher alcohol levels. Wines have to have at least 12 percent alcohol to gain the Chianti designation, for example, and 12.5 percent for Riserva. It isn’t the alcohol itself that is being encouraged here, but the higher quality riper grapes that produce it.

The 18.3 Percent Solution

This doesn’t seem to be as much of a problem today. By the time the grapes in many regions have fully developed flavors it seems that they have over-developed sugar levels that produce a lot of alcohol.

This fact struck me while I was reading Dr. Jay Miller’s review of 2008 Australian wines in the new issue of Wine Advocate. Australia had an awful year in 2008, with wildfires (that left some wines with smoke taint) and a heat wave — day after day of 100 degree plus weather that baked the vineyards and pushed sugar levels over the top.

The amount of alcohol that resulted is stunning (both figuratively and maybe literally, too). Dr. Miller reports that some reds from well regarded Marquis Phillips came in as high as 17.6% (for a Grenache) and even 18.3% (a Shiraz). Eighteen percent is fortified wine territory (and would be regulated as such in many U.S. states), but these are dry table wines. This pushes the limit for wine in all respects, don’t you think?

Adding Jesus Units

Interestingly, rising alcohol levels have appeared despite winemaker efforts to keep them low. The dirty little secret of California wine is that a great deal of it goes through some form of de-alcoholization, where at least part of each vintage has alcohol removed to bring down the overall level.

Another approach is to “just add water” to the fermenting must to literally water down the potential alcohol. A friend calls this technique “adding Jesus units” because water is turned into wine instantly; he says that it is a common practice, if not one that anybody admits using.

I think we might be at the tipping point in terms of alcohol in wine. Winemakers are surely aware of this fact and consumers need to sober up about it, too.

Wine critics have so far resisted reporting alcohol levels in their ratings and tasting notes except in exceptional cases. Maybe it’s time to change this practice so that we can begin to appreciate just how big our alcohol elephant has become.

Note: The “Elephants on Parade” sequence is from the 1941 Disney animated film Dumbo. It’s my New Year’s gift to all Wine Economist readers.

2 responses

    • A valid point. I brought up alcohol removal more as a point of information than as a specific criticism. I wanted to stress the fact that alcohol levels are rising DESPITE efforts to hold them down. Thanks for your interest.

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