Tuesday, February 18, 2014

More alcohol please

For the full story, published by wine-searcher, click here



One of the classic lines used about consumers by wine professionals is that they "talk dry but drink sweet". There's plenty of truth in that - as the growing popularity of "fruity" wines with 10g/l or so of sugar amply proves. But I'd like to suggest a slightly less elegant new line to go with that one. Consumers may talk low alcohol but they like it high.

You don't have to talk to older European wine drinkers for long before some of them will start to lament the good old days when wine came with a strength of 12% or so, instead of the 14% that's common today. This sentiment is far rarer in the US, where the importance people place on alcohol levels is illustrated by their near invisibility on labels. In Australia, muscle - or a lack of it - seems to matter a little more, at least to the makers of new wave 12.5% Chardonnays and their fans.

In the UK a number of producers and retailers have tried to market lower alcohol wines - with strengths of 8-12%. None of these has been a commercial success, apart from the commercial ros├ęs whose appeal almost certainly lies in their sugar content rather than a lack of alcohol. In other words, the people who talk about 12% wines seem to be happily buying ones with 13.5% or more.

The explanation for this paradox may have been provided by a study carried out by Dr. Keren Bindon, of the Australian Wine Research Institute and published in Food Chemistry
For the original research click here

108 regular wine drinkers were given five Cabernet Sauvignons from the same vineyard with natural strengths of between 11.8-15.5% and asked to say which they liked most and least. The clear winner was the 13.6%, while the heaviest losers were the 11.8% and 12.9% which were described as green and unripe. The most powerful samples were far more popular than the lightest ones.



Those who'd like to believe that consumers really do prefer wines with less alcohol (usually because that's what they themselves like to drink) will dismiss this research because a) it was in Australia; b) there were only 108 participants c) that Cabernet is not a great performer at lower strengths (sorry Bordeaux!) and d) the lower alcohol wines may have suffered from inappropriate viticulture. (In other words, vines have to be grown and tended in a way that is ideal to develop ripe flavours at lower natural sugar levels).

All of these are valid points, but I'll still counter them with the evident readiness I've already mentioned of consumers to buy and uncomplainingly consume wines with 13.5-14+%. I look forward to seeing some more research that proves me wrong...

(Thanks to Joelle Nebbe-Mornod for pointing out that Cabernet is less happy at lower natural sugar levels than some other red varieties, and to Tony Milanowski of Plumpton College for the link to the research paper.)



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ADDENDUM
Rereading the wine-searcher piece, the section below reminded me of something I was told recently.

When it comes to wines marketed as 'low alcohol', she explained that many are often produced from riper grapes with the alcohol subsequently removed, which means the riper flavors that consumers like could still be found.

"The consumers probably disliked other things in the 12 percent alcohol wines that were related to unripeness in the grapes e.g. acidity or green characters rather than the lack of alcohol itself. So, it is not to say if you had a wine at 12 percent alcohol with the flavor profile of the ‘riper’ 13.6 percent alcohol wine, that they would not like it," she said.

Apparently some of the famous old Australian reds from the 1950s and 1960s were picked at sugars that created wines with 14+% alcohol. They were then watered down to the 13% or less at which they'd be sold.

Again, I'm looking for comments from anyone who knows more...

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