I am often asked to comment on the issue of alcohol levels in wine, and so I thought I would take the opportunity to put down some thoughts on this question. I can only really comment in the context of the vineyards that I look after, and it seems to me that the issue is relevant to two regions in particular: Bordeaux and the Douro Valley.
To take first the subject in the context of Bordeaux, it is true that in properties like Château Pichon-Longueville Baron and Château Petit-Village, average natural alcohol levels are higher than they used to be. I would stress that higher acohol levels are never our aim, but rather the logical consequence of the way we work in the vineyards today, which has evolved considerably compared to how it was twenty or more years ago.
Some of the more vociferous objections to the levels of alcohol in Bordeaux wines today tend to come from older generation wine experts, whether writers or in the trade, often from the UK. The general argument seems to be that Bordeaux has somehow lost its soul in the pursuit of ripeness, and that “true Claret” should be more like the wines of yesteryear, with lower alcohol levels, wines of the kind that were often unapproachable for years, even decades, only to reveal their true greatness after a very long period. This is something of a caricature, but it is still a point of view one hears, though increasingly rarely.
I think it is important to realise how much the way that we work in the vineyards has changed in Bordeaux. In former times yields per hectare were far higher: twice as much as today, and sometimes more. Selection today is much stricter, both in the vineyard, and when the grapes arrive in the chai. Selection is also far stricter in the blending room, when it comes to selecting the lots of wine for the Grand Vin. The aim of all this endeavour, which amounts to being strict with oneself, and limiting production, is to achieve higher quality. It goes without saying that the elimination of less than perfect grapes before vinification, leads to greater precision and more finesse in the wines – you only have to look at the end of the day at what has been rejected at the sorting table to realize that it is better that this matter was not included in the wine.
But above all, the acceptance of lower yields – within reason –enables us to achieve far more regularly phenological ripeness of the grapes, with the result that today it is relatively rare to taste young red Bordeaux of Grand Cru quality with the green unripe hard tannins that could in the past be a characteristic of cooler years. Such wines are lamented only by a few, and the vast majority of wine drinkers appreciate the fact that high quality can be achieved in most years today. An example in point is the 2007 vintage, which in former times would have probably produced under-ripe grapes, but which in fact produced some lovely wines, very approachable today. This has been achieved at the cost of a lot of hard work in the vineyards and the sacrifice of quantity.
A side effect of this trend however, has inevitably been that average alcohol levels have risen somewhat. At Château Pichon-Longueville Baron, our wines have regularly been at 13 degrees for some years, and at Petit Village, where there is obviously more Merlot, we sometimes rise to 14. I can only stress that these slightly higher alcohol levels are not the aim, they are the consequence of the unrelenting pursuit of higher quality. Above all, the central point seems to me to be that the wines should taste balanced and harmonious. If one notices the alcohol then that indeed is regrettable, but if the wines are as they should be, then all one notices is the wine itself, which is what we are aiming for.
It is important to understand that the effect of achieving more regularly greater phenolic ripeness is not just to achieve higher sugar levels and so higher potential alcohol levels, but also, crucially, riper and finer tannins. We choose the date of picking based on our tasting of the grapes, but also on our analyses of polyphenols and IPTs which usually indicate the optimum phenolic ripeness a couple of days after the desired sugar levels. Sugar levels are not the only measure in other words. The result of picking at the optimum moment – and it is equally important both to wait for the right moment, and also not too wait too long, as over-ripeness must be avoided – is to achieve tannins that are full round, ripe and silky, and it is this, together with the natural acidity in the grape, that balances out the alcohol level, and ensures that the overall impression is one of equilibrium and harmony.
I am a wholehearted subscriber to the idea that great red Bordeaux should be fresh, balanced, fine, delicate, aromatic, the kind of wine of which one can drink with pleasure a few glasses with food, and arise from the table feeling refreshed and clear headed. I think the best wines of recent years triumphantly achieve exactly this, even if their natural alcohol levels may be a degree or so higher than in years gone by.
If one takes the specific example of Château Pichon-Longueville Baron, the quantity of Grand Vin produced in recent years has been half the amount produced previously. But quite obviously the purpose of this radical reduction in the quantity of wine produced is to make the most beautiful Château Pichon-Longueville Baron possible, and a slightly higher average alcohol level is just a consequence of what we are doing, and not the aim.
The second place where the issue arises, and where the situation is rather different, is the Douro Valley. One of the most exciting developments of recent years in the Douro has been the appearance of high quality red wines vinified usually from the noble Port wine varieties such as Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, or Francesa, Tinto Cao, Tinta Roriz etc.. At Noval we have now been making high quality red wines since 2004, and I am so enthused by the potential for these wines that with a group of private investors we acquired the historic vineyard of Quinta da Romaneira a little further uo the valley with the primary purpose of making Douro red wines, although we also make small amounts of high quality Port wines, both Vintage, Late Bottled Vintage and aged tawnies.
Of course the Douro has much more sunshine than Bordeaux, and grapes can often attain high sugar levels, which translate into high alcohol levels in the wine. With Port, this is not so much of a problem: if you are going to fortify the wine during fermentation, it is not much of an issue whether the potential alcohol of harvested grapes is 14 or 15 degrees. With red wine the situation is clearly different, and we have certainly produced wines of 14.5 and sometimes a little higher.
Again, I think that the most important thing is how the wine tastes: if you notice the alcohol level when you taste the wine, then that is undesirable. But usually, if you have a powerful spicy aromatic Douro red, with great fruit and all its elements in balance, my experience is that you do not notice the alcohol when tasting the wine, at least not as a negative element. Naturally the drinking experience is slightly different than for a classic Bordeaux wine: the simple answer is just to drink a little less if the alcohol level is high. However, having said that, we have noticed that Touriga Franca or Francesa very rarely, even in Douro conditions, rises above 12.5 degrees potential alcohol, and so we are blending more of this grape variety in our Quinta do Noval blend than previously, and one of the principal reasons is this variety’s ability to lower the average alcohol level in the final blend. It also happens that its fine aromatic qualities marry very well with the Touriga Nacional to make a great wine, so the outcome is successful in every way. In recent years we have been both planting and grafting more Touriga Franca/Francesa in the Douro for these reasons.
In conclusion, I don’t think higher alcohol levels in wine desirable, and we try to avoid them, but sometimes they inevitably come about, whether it is from a policy of lower yields and stricter selection in Bordeaux, or because of higher levels of sunshine as in the Douro. I believe that the important thing is that when you do have wines with higher alcohol levels there is no perception of this on the taste: as long as the wine is harmonious and balanced then I do not see it as a problem. Naturally if one sees a high alcohol level on the label of a bottle you need to adjust the amount you might decide to drink accordingly, but that is just common sense. I cannot say it is something that I worry about very much in my personal drinking: what matters to me is how the wine tastes: if you have a great glass of wine in front of you at 13 or 14 degrees, and that level is the result of all the complex factors that went into making the wine what it is, I think you just have to accept that, and enjoy the wine, which is the sole purpose of everything that we do.