An Unexpected Reason For Higher Alcohol Wines

It was an odd place to be lamenting increasing alcohol levels in wines. Awkward, in fact, but a person can only handle so much blunt force to the tongue. The place was a pleasant Northern California tasting room where the sangiovese clocked in at 15.1% and the merlot at a puckering 15.8%. 

And, no, those numbers aren't typos.

"Perhaps you could refine some recommendations for me? I'm afraid my aging palate can't handle too much of the hard stuff." 

Apparently they don't hear that too often, but she recovered quickly and sighed, "Yes. It's true. The numbers have gotten higher than we'd like, but..."  

"I'm sure you're doing the best you can with what nature gives you." My interruption was intended to avoid further awkwardness and give her the chance to change the subject.

A brief sidebar on what "nature gives you" means: There are two kinds of ripening that matter to winemakers; brix ripeness and phenolic ripeness. Brix is measured by sugar levels, while phenolic compounds have more to do with the evolution of the grapes' maturity like color, acidity, and so on. Summertime temperatures help brix along, while phenolic ripeness requires hang time - and grapes really shouldn't be picked before the phenolic levels are there. Each variety ripens at its own pace and get picked at very different times, with early-ripening varieties coming in as early as late August (in the northern hemisphere) and others getting harvested as late as mid-October.

In a perfect world, a variety's brix and phenols reach optimal levels at the same time. This is why grape varieties are planted in certain microclimates. Warmer growing seasons, however, are pushing grapes to achieve target brix before phenolic ripeness. The result is brix-ready grapes having to wait around for the phenols to arrive. By the time they do, sugar levels can be through the roof. More sugar means more alcohol. 

Back to the tasting room. We could easily have moved on to another subject, but I'm glad we didn't, because the lesson that followed was both basic and surprising. 

She continued, "Well, there's that, yes. Temperatures are definitely higher, but it's hard out here being a bit player." By "bit player," she meant that the winery, with an annual production of 5,000-10,000 cases per year (which is nothing to sneeze at,) is tiny as compared to some of the surrounding heavyweights.

 "When we're ready to harvest our merlot, so is everyone else. And when the big shots down the street want their merlot harvested, the pickers answer their call first. Us? We're usually towards the end of the line. And it's the same for our cabernet, the carignane, our petite, and so on. We'd like them picked earlier, but we just can't get the laborers out when we need them."

Varieties are planted to match the climate, and yes, a warming planet is forcing a mismatch there. But the vagaries of labor supply, industry consolidation, and the Goliaths of the business getting their way probably account for a lot, too. Who knew?