Have you ever wondered why all the red wine in Australia is 14.5% alcohol? Don’t. Because it’s not. It just says that on the labels.
In reality, many wines claiming that 14.5 figure are actually 16%. In making their alcohol claims, Australian winemakers are permitted an error margin of 1.5% either side of the number they nominate. So when you see red admitting to 16%, it could actually be 17.5%.
This is not good sense during a wowser uprising like we currently endure internationally.
Alcohol numbers crept steadily upwards through the late 1990s and beyond, as Australian red makers strove to please the ridiculously influential US wine critic Robert Parker Jr. He recommended a few strong wines and eventually gave some of them his perfect score of 100/100. Envious Ocker redsters wrongly thought these wines had won the impossible number simply because their alcohol was high, so they began leaving their shiraz on the vines a bit longer, and up crept the strength, usually at the expense of delicacy and gastronomic art.
Put simply, winemakers began selling us bottles of highly alcoholic jam and forgot how to make wines of balance and finesse.
Assisted by global warming, this fad eventually spread worldwide. Even the French saw their alcohols soar in the blistering 2003 vintage, the hottest in 500 years, when 14,802 people died of heat, and Bordeaux reds were suddenly as fashionably alcoholic as the Ocker fruitbombs the Bordelaise had hitherto derided.
In recent times, both the average consumer and the cognoscenti, the merchant and the sommelier, have tired of this and generally demand a return to elegance and finesse. But to achieve this, an entire generation of winemaking graduates seem to find it much easier to simply claim the alcohol is 1.5% lower than they know it to be.
If earth has a scribe you could call the opposite of the semi-retired Parker, that’d be Jancis Robinson, the British expert. Robinson raised a few hackles recently when she repeated leading Rhone winemaker and industry kingpin Michel Chapoutier’s suggestion that the solution to this soaring alcohol was to add water to the wines:
"The southern Rhone is too warm for Syrah. Of course we don’t want to reduce the alcohol by physical means. If you use reverse osmosis to reduce the alcohol, you sacrifice some of the aromas. When you physically concentrate the grape must, you concentrate everything -- including less desirable aspects. So how about simply adding back the water lost by evaporation? If you harvest on the basis of the ripeness of tannins in Grenache you risk having wines at 15.5% or 16% alcohol at least. We experimented and found that adding water did actually result in better wines."
Claiming, with typical Gallish arrogance, that he was the "only one to actually talk about it", Chapoutier went on to say:
"... lots of winemakers do it, and I think we should make it legal and bring it out in the open. It’s the future of wine … I love to make a tasting of 2003s, adding a little water to them -- they’re much better."
As he has attempted for many years to make wines in Australia, which is hotter than the Rhone, I wouldn’t be surprised to discover Chapoutier was triggered to speak by things he learnt here, where "the black snake" -- the water hose -- has always been a key part of the sensitive winemaker’s arsenal. How we let the snake slither from our official public memory is not simply the result of the Parkerilla fashion. In Australia, like France, the addition of water to grape must is illegal.
Given all this, it shouldn’t be.
When the late Mick Knappstein addressed the throng at the centennial anniversary of the revered Wendouree winery in Clare in 1995, he reminded us that the former winemaker there, Roly Birks, also deceased, was:
"... a very honest winemaker, in as much as you knew what he did. You’d see on the head of his vats … so many buckets of Mataro, so many buckets of Shiraz, or even Malbec. He blended his wines at the crusher … It always had at the head of the vats what the additions were. If the grapes were very ripe it would say how much water went in. Now you know, not many winemakers would do that … He was honest!"
You’d be hard put finding any watery flavours in any old Wendouree, no matter how far back you went. These fabulous wines are items of incredible intensity, longevity, finesse and increasing value.
"Among the cognoscenti, elegance and balance was always paramount."
Among the cognoscenti, elegance and balance was always paramount. When Max Schubert wrote his recipe for Grange on the long flight back from his famous 1950 trip to Europe, he declared the fruit should be picked at between 11.5 and 12 degrees Baume, meaning the wines would end up with those percentages of alcohol. Anybody with the incredible fortune to have tasted those 1950s Granges at around 30 years of age would not be complaining of their finesse. My favourite was the ’54, perhaps the lightest of them all.
Professor Julian Alston, a wine economist from the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine Economics at the University of California, was here last week discussing the same topic, quoting data from Ontario’s Liquor Control Board, which includes some 80,000 observations from 20 vintages. He reports a 10% rise in wine alcohol, internationally, and suggested Australia should consider this, especially given the flexibility in the margin of error most Australian winemakers take advantage of.
Typically, Steve Guy, regulation manager for Wine Australia, dismissed this claim when quizzed by the ABC’s Matthew Doran
. Despite the increasing tendency to claim alcohols are lower than they actually are, Guy retorted:
"We certainly haven’t seen evidence of that, and really see no motivation for wine producers to use the tolerance in such a fashion … I think it’s a recognition that wine is a natural product, and from year to year, the same vineyard can produce wine of differing alcohol depending on the climate that year ...
"There’s been a trend in Australia perhaps to produce wine of a slightly lower alcohol content than might have been the case maybe, say 10 years ago. This is just fashion, and I think winemakers are responding to a perceived need for producing products that are more food-friendly, perhaps."
This followed feisty wine industry blogger Dudley Brown urging on his site The Wine Rules
that it would be to Australia’s advantage to make our wine labelling rules "the toughest in the world". The former president of the McLaren Vale Winemakers wrote:
"Let’s say a variance of +/-0.3% of alcohol by volume instead of the current +/- 1.5%. By doing just this, we will send a message to the world that we are winemakers who take our products, and our customers’ health and education, very seriously."
Such a move would surely push us back towards admitting the need for a bit of the old black snake, as Chapoutier thoughtfully reminds us.
But it could also push alcohols down by tax. Currently, wine is taxed via the Wine Equalisation Tax and its much rorted rebate. This levels its impost on the value of the product, not its strength. As there are constant and increasing calls to have this dumped so all booze can be taxed on the amount of alcohol it contains, by excise, as is imposed on beer and spirits, Australian drinkers could expect a very quick return to elegance and finesse.
Presuming, of course, our winemakers can remember how to achieve it, or learn how to do it without going to jail. If we were more open about it, those who know how best to apply the black snake could explain it to others without fear of prosecution.
*This article was originally published at InDaily