by Ross WorkmanThe complaint about what some call high alcohol levels in wines sometimes makes the point that wines occasionally are somehow manipulated to reduce alcohol levels and that such "processing" makes a wine "unnatural" or "dishonest." The types of processes involved in reducing alcohol are mainly with a spinning cone or membrane filtration. But quaere: Are these techniques something that makes the wine less natural and less desirable?
The implication seems to be that, without the steps taken to adjust alcohol level, the wine would be a natural product. And that, with the steps, it becomes a processed product, invoking the benefits of natural food from the farmers' market versus manipulated, processed food of the supermarket. But, really, alcohol adjustment is merely one more process among the many manipulations sometimes used to turn grapes into bottled wine.
A great deal of our food, perhaps most of it, is processed one way or another. We sometimes eat raw fresh fruit and vegetables more or less as they left the tree or field. But cooking is certainly a form of processing. And a great deal of other foods requires some processing before cooking. There is no salami, sausage, bacon or proscuitto to be found in the carcass of a slaughtered pig. Beef does not come out of the cow as pastrami or corned beef. We remove the hulls from rice and grind most other grains. Nuts are usually roasted as well as being shelled. But there is not much complaint about peanut butter, ham & eggs or a pastrami sandwich being processed food.
To make grapes into wine we mechanically remove the stems and crush the berries. Cultured, purchased yeast is often added for fermentation. Even in a so-called gravity flow winery, there are frequent times when the wine is pumped from one place to another. The fermentation temperature is always controlled in modern wines; that involves quite un-natural refrigeration. Sometimes cold-stabilization of white wines is done by chilling to 32 degrees or less for several days. For a century or more a small amount of sulfites have been added to prevent spoilage and oxidation of the wine. When it is bottled, a layer of inert gas is injected between the wine and the cork to prevent oxidation.
Despite all this processing, some critics complain that an additional step, to adjust the alcohol level, somehow detracts from the character of the wine as a natural product. Surely they are not serious. Their true complaint is that the winemaker used fully ripe grapes with high natural sugar levels resulting in an alcohol level 1% or more higher than it would have been with less ripe grapes.
Many of today's top winemakers prefer riper fruit, an intentional choice for greater development of phenolic compounds and enhanced flavors. As riper grapes have more sugar, this higher alcohol becomes a problem - or an asset - depending on the winemaker. One winery is currently studying the potential health benefits of wines produced from fruit left on the vine for enhanced ripeness versus old world standards. Adjusting the alcohol has become a winemakers tool worldwide, and the wines are better for it
The argument is not really about making wine dishonest by using the processes of adjusting the alcohol level. It is about a stylistic change and some people don't like change. Wine should be considered one of the most natural, wholesome products available.
The most important wine critics agree that these slightly riper wines are better tasting. And some winemakers have lowered the alcohol, while retaining the riper flavors, as an individual choice to make a better wine
Wine consumers can and should choose the style and flavor profile that suit them. Saying that a wine whose alcohol has been adjusted is less honest or natural than another wine, is merely a cover for someone's preference for the under-ripe style. What’s the honesty in that?
Fortunately there is plenty of wine in the world of both styles. So it is easy for everybody to follow the first rule of a thinking wine lover:
Drink what tastes good to you, not what somebody tells you that you should like.