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Rising alcohol levels - discuss

Published:  23 July, 2008

With the alcohol level of wines on a seemingly inexorable rise - led by the New World, but now increasingly driven by the Old World as well - the International Wine and Spirits Competition decided to hold a debate to discuss the often controversial issues that surround high alcohol. Does high alcohol go hand in hand with high quality? Do consumers like elevated alcohol levels? What are the health issues associated with consuming wines with high alcohol levels? And can a wine of 15% ABV ever be balanced?

The debate featured speakers from different sectors of the industry - journalism, research, sales, health and science - and finished with a lively debate on the floor. Here is an abridged version of what the speakers said.

Richard Halstead, Wine Intelligence

Halstead gave a quick overview of what the consumers in Wine intelligence's Wine Consumer Access Survey (WCAS), which has more than 1,000 members, feel about alcohol levels in their wines. In general consumers think high alcohol wines [which Wine Intelligence sets as those with above 13% ABV] are good news,' he said. For some it may simply be a "bang for buck" consideration, whereas others see wines with high alcohol as being more complex and having a better taste. For more highly involved consumers [Robert] Parker's championing of wines with elevated alcohol levels may be a factor.' He added that from anecdotal evidence from Wine Intelligence focus groups, consumers felt that high alcohol was generally a sign of wine quality.

In the recent WCAS study, 42% of consumers said they were likely to buy wines with a high' alcohol (13% ABV or higher) compared to 14% who said they would buy wines at lower alcohol levels (11% ABV or lower). Women were only slightly more likely (21%) to go for the lower option. Other findings were that 18- to 24-year-olds were more likely (50% compared to 38%) than older consumers to look for high alcohol when buying wines, and that heavy wine consumers where significantly more likely to buy wines with a higher alcohol level than those who drink wine infrequently.

The trends are not particularly clear and more research would be needed but it would seem that there is no suggestion that high alcohol levels are seen as a bad thing amongst the vast majority

of consumers' said Halstead.

Chris Unger, Negociants UK

Unger is a sales manager for Negociants UK, the Australian-owned importer of Yalumba and a number of other New World wines. He is also a fully trained winemaker and worked in wine production for seven years before coming to the UK. Unger stressed that a number shouldn't be the only consideration when categorising the wine as high alcohol'. It is far more important to identify when high alcohols affect the quality of the wine', and that achieving a balance from the vineyard to the market' is key: It is clear that there are some grape varieties that are planted in the wrong places so that they become too ripe and develop too much sugar, so management of vineyards is critical to this argument.' Unger said that rootstocks, clone, crop level, canopy management and irrigation are all essential to managing ripeness while keeping alcohol at acceptable levels. He added, however, that if consumers wanted to drink wines made from physiologically ripe' grapes, higher alcohol levels than was common in the past is to be expected. High alcohol shouldn't be viewed automatically as an evil. Wine quality should only be judged on its balance not on the number that is written on the label. It is vital that we do not overreact.'

Malcolm Gluck, Superplonk

Journalist Malcolm Gluck took the opposite view to Unger: that all wines with high alcohol - except for a few exceptions like Amarone, Barolo, some wines from the south of France and a handful' of New World wines - are intrinsically repugnant'. Many wines now leave us with little more than a headache. The finest wines are those where you are not conscious of drinking large amounts of alcohol. Wines that are at 14.9 to 15.6% alcohol are completely undrinkable. High alcohol is the curse of this business.' Gluck's answer to the high-alcohol conundrum was to suggest that the Treasury introduces a new tax regime that makes wines at 14 and 15% alcohol so expensive that they are prohibitive for the majority of the population to buy them. I have nothing against them existing but only the super rich should be able to afford them. At least that would mean we would all drink more of the wonderful, comparatively low-alcohol wines from Germany.'

Geoff Taylor, Corkwise

Chemist Geoff Taylor, founder of Corkwise - the laboratory that analyses all the entries entered in the IWSC - gave a succinct talk on the reasons for high alcohol levels and the danger of believing the ABV figures given on wine packaging.

It's a fact that the riper the grape harvested the higher in alcohol the resulting wine will be,' he said. Consumers have been asking for wines with a softer mouthfeel and less harsh tannins, the way to get this is riper grapes.'

He went on to describe how more efficient yeasts - now we tend to get 1% alcohol every 16 grams of sugar per litre rather than every 17 grams as previously' - temperature-controlled (closed) fermenters and the search for full maturity has all added to alcohol levels.

It is also important to remember, Taylor said, that the given alcohol level on a bottle has a 0.5% ABV either way, so our wines may be more (or less) alcoholic than we believe. Furthermore, tests we have done have shown that different bottlings of the same wine can have alcohol levels that vary by as much as 0.8% for the same wine, so alcohol levels may vary more than we are officially told.'

Steve Kirkham, restaurant wine buyer

Kirkham, who has previously worked for Oddbins as a buyer and as head sommelier at the Conran Group and now works as head sommelier at the Don restaurant, said that top-end consumers were increasingly aware of higher alcohol levels. I was asked recently by a customer at lunch to find them a Bordeaux that had no more than 12.5% alcohol. I went to look at my list and, sadly, I did not have a single one.'

Kirkham is against wines that are overly alcoholic as alcohol creates a barrier to tasting the more subtle flavours of the accompanying food. He added that restaurant customers were generally more accepting of more traditional wine styles - with higher tannin and acid - in restaurants than they were at home where they will often be drinking wine without food and want a softer mouthfeel'. Overall, however, away from his own personal preferences, Kirkham felt alcohol levels were not felt to be a major problem in the catering industry.

Helena Conibear, Alcohol in Moderation

Helena Conibear, editorial director of Alcohol in Moderation (AIM) - an international group that promotes the responsible consumption of alcohol - gave a rundown of how increased alcohol levels can affect consumption. Conibear also previously worked as a winemaker and said that although she understood the reasons for rising alcohol - climate change, young vines, virus-free stock, more efficient rootstock, the search for physiological ripeness and consumer preference - it was important to remember how alcohol levels affected sensible drinking guidelines. (The government suggests that females should drink no more than three units per day and males no more than four per day). A 175ml glass of wine at 11% is 1.8 units, but the same size is 2.7 units if the wine is 15% alcohol. When you take the 250ml glass that is increasingly common as a serve in UK pubs, a wine at 15% alcohol contains four units. With one glass a woman is exceeding government guidelines on healthy daily intake. It is easy to forget that a bottle of wine at 15% ABV has 25% more alcohol than one at 12%. A man can only drink a third of bottle of wine at 15% before breaking the guidelines but can drink half a bottle at 12.5%.'

Conibear went on to remind the audience that a glass of wine at 14% alcohol had the same amount of units as two or thee alcopops and one and a half pints of beer. A double gin and tonic usually reaches 13% alcohol. It is important to remember that wine is one of the strongest drinks on the market,' she said,' and at current alcohol levels drink-drive limits can be reached before you have finished your first glass.' She also urged producers to think about the marketing opportunities that lower alcohol wines can provide: Why is nobody promoting light, flowery Muscats or delicate, balanced Sauvignons. With modern techniques it should be possible to get fruit, ripe flavours and lower alcohol all in the same glass.'

The debate then moved to the floor and covered a number of topics, such as: consumer choice if consumers like wines with high alcohol who are we to tell them otherwise'; less efficient yeasts; the tax regime; the influence of Parker and a trans-Atlanticplate split; and what is a wines sweet spot' when it comes to alcohol. The debate's conclusion? That it is a subject - much like the wines themselves - that is not going to go away any time soon.