The debate over alcohol levels in wine rages on, with a slightly surprising new voice on the lower alcohol camp. Randy Dunn, legendary winemaker of Dunn Vineyards, and the guy that put Howell Mountain on the winemaking map, has spoken out against high alcohol levels. Apparently the move has been prompted by his current vintage which for the first time has broken the 14% mark (14.11%ABV to be precise!). Its interesting to read his arguement (http://wine.appellationamerica.com/wine-review/447/Winemaker-Randy-Dunn.html). One of his bones of contention is that by leaving the fruit on the vines for longer is actually removing the terrior from winemaking. By producing over-ripe, over-extracted wines, we have removed the individual character of the region it was grown in. Now most Californian cabs have a hot, raisined character that just gets blasted by alcohol. Back in the golden days of the California wine industry (the early 70's to 80's), each appellation had its own style, it was possible to distinguish between a Howell Mountain cab, or a Stags Leap or a Rutherford Bench Cab becuase the conditions the fruit was grown under created the character of the fruit.
Its an interesting arguement over the evolution of viticulture and vinification. Whilst browsing the Opus One website a while ago I noticed how the whole regime of how the wines were made evolved over the two decades that we listed. The early vintages had no more than 10 days of skin contact, rising to 20+ days in the early eighties, growing to 30+ in the late eighties and into the nineties, upto as much as 44 days! Conversely the amount of aging in barrel seems to have dropped from nearly two years to an average of 18 months. And if you think that Opus, being a collaberation between the old world and the new, underwent a change, what kind of changes did the Californian "old Guard" go through - Chateau Montellana, Stags Leap Cellars, Heitz Vineyards, etc. There is no denying alcohol levels have grown steadily over the years. It is not uncommon now to find wines in the 15's and even approaching the 16% level (In the UK anything over 15% is classed as a Liqueur Wine and is subject to a higher rate of taxation - £2.37 per litre compared to £1.77 per litre). Is this too high? In my personal opinion yes it is. Will I stop selling them, or refuse to list any that have high alcohol? Truthfully I dont know. At the moment we have a few wines that could be called high alcohol. Mainly Aussie but a few Cali cabs too. In most cases I think the alcohol is in overall balance with the wine, and they dont "burn", so I will probably continue to sell them, but ultimately if the public starts asking for lower alcohol wines then we will have to review the situation. So far that hasnt really happened, but then the majority of our list of old world, and lets face it, they often struggle to get the alcohol levels above 12% without chaptalising!