Lars Carlberg recently left another informative and interesting comment on this blog, this time to the post on Domaine Tempier's 1994 Bandol. Lars, Mosel wine exporter, wine lover, and wine thinker extraordinaire, lamented the fact that alcohol levels are consistently higher now in so many wines from Bandol and Châteauneuf du Pape.
Alcohol levels are typically at least 14% now in wines from those places, regularly hitting 15%. Until a decade ago, alcohol levels were typically about 13%. That increase of 1-2% represents 10-15% more alcohol in the wine, a significant increase. Why has this happened? I do not have a definitive answer for you, but Lars talked about phenolic ripeness and I want to explain what I think he meant - it's an interesting and counter intuitive idea.
First of all, the amount of sugar (measured in Brix) contained within grapes determines the potential alcohol level of the resulting wine. Bandol reds and also those from Châteauneuf du Pape, like most red wines, are fermented until dry. If alcohol levels are higher now, then it seems clear that grapes are now picked at sugar levels that are higher than they used to be.
Why would there now be more sugar in Bandol and Châteauneuf du Pape grapes? Perhaps it was a collective decision to pick later, encouraging maximum ripeness. But I don't think that's the answer. There are wine regions in which the prevailing style is to leave the grapes hanging as long as is safe to do so, producing ultra-ripe grapes that in turn produce huge, fruity, high alcohol wines. I don't think that's what they're going for in Bandol or in Châteauneuf du Pape.
So what's else could be behind the increase in alcohol levels if it's not a conscious decision to pick later? Well, it turns out that there are two types of ripeness. Sugar ripeness, but also something called phenolic ripeness. As Jamie Goode's describes in an excellent article that goes into far greater detail than I do here:
Phenolic ripeness (also referred to as physiological ripeness) refers to the changes in the tannins that occur in grape skins, seeds and stems. Sugar ripeness refers to the breakdown of acids and accumulation of sugars.The tannins in grape skins, stems, and seeds have to be ripe in order for wine to taste and feel right in your mouth. Under-ripe tannins can taste green and astringent, unpleasant. But sugar ripeness happens earlier than phenolic ripeness. So grapes that hang for a long time and achieve ultra-ripe sugars also achieve very good phenolic ripeness. Think of that California fruit bomb that exhibits loads of fruit and almost no structure.
It's warmer than it used to be, so shouldn't ripeness occur earlier? Sugar ripeness - yes. Phenolic ripeness, not necessarily. What if grapes achieve sugar ripeness before phenolic ripeness is achieved? The grower must then either pick early, perhaps making wine with astringent tannins and a green streak, or must allow the grapes to hang longer, achieving higher sugars and wines of potentially higher alcohol. This is what I imagine is happening in Bandol and in Châteauneuf du Pape, and in other hot weather wine regions too.
Global warming, as GW Bush said, is a load of hogwash spread around by environmentalist pagans. That wisdom notwithstanding, harvests that used to happen in late September and into October are now complete by mid September. In Bandol they're getting the right sugars, but they cannot pick grapes with unripe tannins. The wines are already notoriously tannic - imagine a big Bandol with unripe tannins. So they have to leave the grapes for longer than they'd like, and the wines are higher in alcohol.
Perhaps they will start making off-dry wines in Bandol and Châteauneuf du Pape, in order to bring the alcohol levels back down. Or perhaps they will plant different grapes that require more sun in order to ripen. Or perhaps, truly fine red wines made from Mourvèdre, Grenache, Cinsault, Syrah, and the other southern grapes, will in 30 years be coming from the more northerly climes of Beaujolais and Burgundy. Or perhaps producers in Bandol and Châteauneuf du Pape will be forced to start de-alcoholizing their wines, and using all sorts of other unnatural processes in order to make balanced wine.
None of this seems good. I'm buying hillside land with good exposure in Scotland and Greenland. Anyone want in?