This wine, Goriška Brda belo 2015, is a blend of 50% Sauvignonasse, 30% Rebula, 15% Pinot Blanc and 5% Pinot Gris.

The alcohol-level in wines has become a topic.* According to many reviews and blogs there is a trend for lower-alcohol wines. First of all: I’m not sure if such a trend exists: some high-alcohol wines have great success (think of Amarone della Valpolicella, Zinfandel from California or Shiraz from Australia among others: wines with many followers worldwide). At least it shows that there are different trends too. Generally, alcohol levels in wines have risen and climate change is an important factor here. Another factor is the trend of quality wine-making. Wines that used to have 12% now often show 14% and those of 13 are going beyond 15,5 or even 16%. Today many Barberas from Piemonte show at least 14% but some are above 15% or even 15,5%.** Shiraz from Australia or Zinfandel from California often contain 16% or more. Many famous whites contain more alcohol, like Burgundy, Rhône and Italian whites like Timorasso in Piemonte.
Today many winemakers produce more mature wines, with more phenolic ripeness and alcohol. When the phenolic components are riper, the tannins and flavors of a wine will be more intense and rich and the alcohol level will contribute to a more intense taste profile. A grape berry has several components (skin, flesh, seeds, stem) and when each of them has developed to full maturity, the resulting wine will taste richer. To achieve this, modern winemakers work with lower yields (which stimulates the plant to dedicate all energy on fewer grapes) and a later harvest moment (which results not only in higher alcohol but also in more phenolic ripeness). The result can be a fantastic wine with incredible depth, structure, and amazing richness of flavors but also more alcohol.
It is very important to notice that these wines have reached their alcohol level in a natural way, by fermenting the sugars, without adding anything (adding sugar is not needed). It means that these wines, if well-made, show a natural balance between the various aspects that compose the taste (alcohol, acidity, tannins, perfumes, flavors). Especially the acidity level is important: if the acidity is too low, the alcohol may dominate and the wine will lose balance. In that case, the wines are less interesting (Pinot Noir is an exception, it gives some of the greatest wines, but has low acidity). It is this balance that makes that the aromas and flavors dominate the wine in combination with the alcohol. The alcohol level is not disturbing at all and reading the back-label can be a surprise. A wine can also have balance but still be dull and never arrive at this point of excellence, so it is also the depth and the substance in a wine that makes its greatness: and this comes almost necessarily with higher alcohol. For the production of such wines, great skill from the winemaker is needed. Most of the best wines I tasted during the last ten years are in this category. And it is very clear that alcohol contributes to the success of these great wines with balance.
Another factor that helped increase the alcohol levels in wines was a very influential critic from the USA who had a clear preference for strong, alcoholic wines.
So: if these wines are so great, what is then the problem? First of all, there is a category of drinkers looking for lower alcohol wines. It can be elderly, or those who are sensitive to alcohol, or those who prefer to avoid the consequences of drinking too much alcohol. This is logical and acceptable. So there is a market for lower alcohol wines.
But on the producers’ side, there are complaints and they have some reason. Because during the last decades, producers, associations, universities, enologues, etcetera, have invested much time and effort to create the new trend of quality wine that I quoted above. All this resulted in wines with more concentration and more alcohol. And the producers cannot easily change philosophy. Harvesting earlier means not only less alcohol and fresher wines but it also has as a consequence that a producer has to leave his quality concept. There are many terroirs where the best wine will automatically be an important (higher alcohol) wine, like Barossa valley for Shiraz or Napa for Cabernet. There seems no other way. The same with Nebbiolo in Piemonte and Aglianico in Campania. The solution to this problem is not easy.
One solution, which remains very important, is to convince the consumers that quality wine can be very enjoyable even if the wine has a higher alcohol percentage. Most of the great wines in the world are in this category, and, besides, you don’t drink wine for thirst! In restaurants and at home you can always drink water in order to reduce the alcohol effect. In all Italian restaurants, the first question to the guests is which water they want to drink, only later the menu will be presented. Because water drinking is essential and they should be applauded for it. And it means the guests can order high-quality wine and enjoy it!
I do not want to talk about over-concentrated wines that are on the edge of drinkability. I want to promote those wines that are excellent, well-made, either white or red, that have become great wines with balance (and in some cases combining this with a higher alcohol level). These wines merit to be praised and promoted. Many of these producers work with lesser interventions in nature (it is impossible to generalize here) because they pay much attention to the quality of their wine, which means paying attention to the quality of the vineyard as well.
All this is also a matter of taste. Some wine lovers prefer fresher wines with more acidity, racy, and pure and they have ample choice. Wine is a very complex matter and it is difficult to talk about wine as one style. There are hundreds of styles and nobody has the right to say that one style is the best one. The only thing that I would like to bring forward is that some wines have arrived at what I call a level of greatness, thanks to all efforts by producers, consortia, etcetera. It has been the most important trend in winemaking of the last 30 years and I consider it important to recognize this. This trend, in combination with climate change, has caused higher alcohol levels, but the quality of the wines has increased. So I consider it not correct to criticize this trend and the high-quality wines that we can find everywhere. Do these wines have a problem? I don’t think so, because the market demand is high. It also means that those drinkers searching for lower alcohol wines but who also appreciate these wines, may have a problem. As I said before, drinking water before and during the enjoying of the wine is one solution and the amount of wine is the responsibility of each individual person. But it seems that those people who would enjoy these wines in theory, now are reluctant to enjoy them because of the small indication on the (back-)label. It is a pity. Is it a real problem or maybe in some cases only a mindset problem?

Producers are looking for solutions. One solution is earlier harvesting and producing higher yields. Some producers have changed their quality concept, left the idea of the highest possible quality from their vineyards, and harvest earlier and with higher yields, creating wines with more acidity and lower alcohol levels. Many of these wines are drinkable but in my view have lost their greatness. Other producers are looking for other vineyard positions at higher and cooler places. In regions such as Oregon (USA) or New Zealand this is possible but in densely populated regions such as Burgundy, Piemonte, or Tuscany this option does not exist or at extremely high costs. Also using wild yeasts can help in having lower alcohols because such a ‘wild’ fermentation makes for less efficient conversions which leads to lower alcohol levels. In California, it is known that some producers even add water to their Zinfandel, in order to create a lower alcohol level. To me this option is very strange: why pay so much effort for producing great wine and then dilute it with water? Producing higher yields would be more practical, or, another solution might be picking the grapes earlier to have lower alcohol and more acidity and add some sugar in order to give the wine more alcohol and body: I am not in favor of this solution as the best and most delicious wines are made without adding anything; when additives are added, such a wine might become one of those lacking balance. Finally, there are also technical options such as reverse osmosis, which seems to be quite costly but can be a solution to lower the alcohol levels of wine.

I think there is another solution: blending. In his fabulous article in Decanter ***, English wine writer Andrew Jefford argues how greatness in wines relates to ripeness, depth of flavors and higher alcohol. I agree with him, but I have some questions about his suggestions of canopy management, soil restoration, quick harvesting, etcetera, as possible solutions because I consider them as part of modern winemaking techniques which easily can lead to higher alcohol levels. I think blending can be a better solution. (Jefford’s article is a great read which I recommend to every wine-lover!).
When I talk about blending I do not refer to the big mass of cheap wines, vin de table or vino da tavola, available for small money from many shelves. Blending is a very serious art that leads to some of the most prestigious wines on the planet. Many of France’s and Spain’s most prestigious wines are blends: Bordeaux, Rhône, Languedoc, Ribera del Duero, Rioja. And there is a reason for that: producers in these regions have understood that different grape varieties have different qualities and some varieties need to be ‘corrected’ with other varieties in order to obtain the highest quality level. In many French wine regions blending wines is normal in many occasions. One of the best examples of a successfully blended wine is Vinho Verde, Portugal’s famous white wine: it is a wonderful wine and can be produced from a great number of indigenous varieties. It boasts only 9% alcohol and is a great refresher in the hot summer. I don’t know any white wine of 9% which is so joyful as Vinho Verde and still shows such complexity. Of course, there are several factors here: the choice of the varietals, which normally don’t give a high sugar level, and the Atlantic climate of the region which favors more acidic, fresh wines.
Before 100 years, blending wines or producing wines from many different grapes, was normal in almost all European vineyards and for another reason: due to the lack of technology in the cellar (no temperature control) the producers hoped that when harvesting 10 grapes, at least 5 or 7 would be mature and in the blend, the mature grapes would ‘correct’ those that were not ripe yet with a better wine as result. Today this argument is not valid anymore, but blending is still an option. I think that for those Zinfandel producers blending would be a better option instead of adding water: they could blend with a low-alcohol wine and it even may be white (think of low-alcohol producing Ribolla Gialla). It would give the wine more complexity, more tension, less alcohol, and the wine would also work as more natural. I also think it should not be a taboo to have a small percentage of white wine in a red wine blend. Take Chianti or some Rhône wines that in the past were blended – legally – with a small percentage of white wine.
Blending gives a wine with more complexity and when composed with much care it can be wonderful. Maybe a blended wine needs to age a bit longer before arriving at its best drinkable moment, but this can be considered as positive. Blending wines is the best way of correcting wines, and helps to avoid other ‘corrections’ such as adding sugar, acidity, or other (legally allowed) additives. Because, and this is important: to obtain that balance of greatness, of which I talked above, a wine needs to be pure and purity can be best achieved by blending because then the wine remains pure, without additives. The other point is that when blended with care, a wine can eventually have a lower alcohol level, but still preserve these complex qualities. A well-made blend can be very smooth and complex at the same time, qualities that we use to see in wines with higher alcohol. I’m not sure if this aspect of blending is taken into consideration by producers, but I would strongly recommend this.
My white wine is a good example: it is produced by Šibav winery in Goriška Brda, Slovenia. Today, also in Slovenia, most wines are monovarietal but the tradition was to make blends. The wine is produced with Sauvignonasse 50%, Rebula/Ribolla Gialla 30%, Pinot Blanc 15% and Pinot Gris 5%. The success of the wine is especially due to the combination of Sauvignonasse, an aromatic wine, with higher alcohol, and Rebula, a variety that never gives high alcohol, but much character, taste and high acidity. This contrast makes the wine very attractive. The wine is made more complex and smooth by adding Pinot Blanc, which gives great wines in the area of Collio, Brda, Colli Orientali and Isonzo: it has character but remains very elegant. I am convinced that the wine wins much complexity and character with it. Finally, 5% of Pinot Gris is added which contributes to even more complexity of the wine. The good news: the wine has 12,5% alc.vol., but tasters often guess the alcohol higher because the mouthfeel of the wine gives a stronger impression. It has very subtle hints of butter, salt, minerals, and white flowers but is not too big and filling, its subtle character and freshness remain. I am not telling that this wine has greatness, but it has fine, subtle flavors that make it an attractive drink. What I have learned by the production of this wine is that blending can also lead to interesting wines with lower alcohol. This wine has convinced me to write this text. Because blending can be an important solution for making high-quality wines and avoid too high alcohol levels.

*In this article I’m not talking about taxes: higher alcohol wines are taxed higher and this can increase the price of a bottle. The tax systems are different from country to country but generally the higher the alcohol, the higher the tax on the wine.

**Another problem is incorrect labeling. In most countries a discrepancy of 0,5% is allowed, it means that a wine of 12,5% might be somewhere between 12 and 13% (there are also countries with a wider allowance, allowing producers to put 1% or 1,5% different from the real percentage). But there have been cases where a producer was found to have labeled 12,5 where a wine was 14 or more, etcetera. Such behavior is not correct and sanctions are a logical step. The first objective of wine labels is to inform consumers. Australia allows a difference of 1,5% which in my opinion is a too big discrepancy, it can create confusion among consumers.

***Andrew Jefford, ‘BIG and beautiful’ (in Decanter, December 2018)

Paul Balke


Some other sources I used: