By Eric Pfanner
PARIS — In my column this week on the Wachau region of Austria, I look at the issue of rising alcohol levels in wine.
The whites of the Wachau have sometimes been criticized for their heft, with alcohol levels that have crept above 15 percent in certain cases.
In fact, on my visit, I had no problem finding Wachau wines with more modest alcohol levels. Even the biggest, most concentrated wines that I featured in my column, those of Weingut Franz Hirtzberger, topped out at 14 percent — elevated, certainly, for Old World whites, but not over the top. These were lovely, balanced wines. But I also tasted wines from lesser producers that clearly showed more alcoholic “heat” than I would like.
The Wachau is not alone in re-examining the alcohol content in wine. This is an issue that is generating a lot of discussion among winemakers, critics and consumers around the world, as levels seem to rise year after year.
Part of the problem is that there is no “normal” alcohol level for wine. Some wines, such as sweet, sparkling Moscato d’Asti from Italy, can have as little as 5 percent alcohol — roughly the same level as a lager beer. That is because much of the sugar in the grapes is left unfermented. Similarly, slightly sweet Kabinett Rieslings from the Mosel in Germany sometimes have only 7 or 8 percent alcohol.
At the other extreme, Amarone della Valpolicella, a big Italian red that is made from dried grapes — I wrote about these wines last month — can sometimes top 16 percent. Some Napa Valley reds from California and some Chateauneuf-du-Papes from the Rhone Valley of France approach these levels.
Not long ago, the norm, even for full-bodied wines like these, was around 13 or 14 percent. What happened?
Some experts blame global warming, saying this has lead to riper grapes with higher sugar levels, though I am skeptical about whether incremental changes in the climate, with considerable variation from year to year, could have caused such a big increase. Another factor may be that growers are picking their grapes later, convinced that consumers like rich, lush — and, yes — high-alcohol wines.
Indeed, many people do. I love Chateauneuf-du-Pape and the occasional Amarone, though I tend to look for wines of more modest alcohol levels (even if this is not the first thing I check on the label). By modest, I mean around 13 percent. The wines of Burgundy, the Loire Valley and Bordeaux generally fit nicely into this range (though Bordeaux, too, has been creeping upward).
Now, with spring sunshine finally making an appearance in Paris, I’ll probably notch that level down a bit, at least on occasion. High alcohol and high temperatures just don’t go together. Yes, it’s time to chill some German Riesling.