Alcohol has gone up, hasn’t it? I’m not imagining it?
No, you’re not – wine alcohol-by-volume (ABV) levels have indeed crept up in the past couple of decades: 12% used to be standard for many red table wines; now that would be seen as anaemic, and 13%-15% is more typical.
I suppose – as The Irish Examiner would put it – ‘THIS IS GLOBAL WARMING’?
In part, yes: elevated temperatures since the late 1980s have helped drive up sweetness in grapes and this sugar is what gets converted by the wine yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae into alcohol. So climate change is a factor. But arguably more important has been drinkers’ (and critics’!) changing tastes, where people prefer riper, fruitier, less tannic and less acidic wines (compared to what went before). An easy way for producers to make wines that fit this luscious profile is to simply wait longer before harvesting. But increasing the ‘hang time’ like this gives grapes extra time to accumulate sugars which, again, means heftier alcohol.
What’s wrong with high-alcohol wine anyway?
Depends on who you talk to! Plenty of ordinary drinkers love super-ripe, ‘fruit bomb’ wines with low acidity, soft tannins and ‘hearty’ alcohol. Other consumers shy away from these bottled for health reasons. Wine journalists (particularly in Europe) and some wine trade professionals, meanwhile, argue that overripe, high-alcohol wines from semi-raisined berries all taste the same, don’t pair well with food and don’t age gracefully (although who cellars wines today?). It’s a controversial topic.
Is alcohol just going to keep going up and up as the planet warms?
Hmmm… probably not. Romantic-sounding alcohol-reduction technologies like ‘reverse osmosis’ and ‘spinning cones’ (a present from the nuclear industry) are today available (albeit at a cost) for any winery that wants to produce hedonistic, sumptuous wines without the ethanol kick (or without so much of it anyway). Low tech fixes exist too – pick a bit earlier, irrigate the vineyard, dilute the developing wine with water (illegal, but sometimes done) and more.
Try not to worry – if there is too much alcohol in a wine just drink less of it. ;)