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Tuesday Tributes
The Low Alcohol Craze Goes Overboard

By Charles Olken

Something has to give. The newfound lust for low alcohol wines is about to destroy the wine business as we know it.

A recent study out of Germany, looking at consumer preferences around the globe, has uncovered the most bothersome of truths. People want wine to be less than 12% alcohol. This would not be such a bad thing if it were possible to make our favorite wines at that reduced level and still deliver full and balanced flavors.

Who would not want rich, layered Cabernets or supple, silky, nuanced Pinot Noirs with low alcohols? Bring me the flavor, bring me the texture, bring me the balance, bring me the sympathetic partnership with great meals, or even with hamburgers, and I will join the amen chorus in a heartbeat. But there is a reason why our favorite wines do not exist at 10.5% to 12% alcohol. The do not taste as good at those levels. It is simply a matter of fact. One cannot find any grand Pinot or Cabernet or Chardonnay or Zinfandel at those kinds of alcohol levels.

People want lower alcohol so they can drink more. I get that. I like low-alcohol ciders when I am in Normandy. I like most beers and ales because they are closer to 5% than 10% and one can take a healthy mouthful to wash down that pizza or lamb vindaloo or kung pao prawn. So why would I not want a 5% alcohol Cabernet that was rich, deep and balanced and was still a perfect accompaniment to a standing rib roast? In point of fact, I do. We all do.

The late Louis Martini, in the very first interview I ever did after starting Connoisseurs’ Guide back in the dark ages, put it this way, “I love wine. I don’t like alcohol. The perfect wine would be one that had no alcohol at all. So far that wine does not exist”. He went on to explain that alcohol limited the amount of wine he could drink and also the amount of wine that he could sell.

But Mr. Martini knew better, and if you look into your heart of hearts, you know better as well. The same survey that says Americans want alcohols under 12% and that says the Chinese want alcohols closer to 10% also reflects this contradictory fact. The two favorite varieties in both countries are Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. If ever there were varieties that simply cannot, in today’s world, produce high quality wines at those low alcohol levels, those two must stand near the top of the list.

It is unfortunate, but it is time to admit that our brains tell us one thing and our palates tell us another. And sadly, we cannot have it both ways. We cannot drink our favorite tipples in unlimited amounts. Wine just does not work that way.

So, until the world invents a better grape or a useful yeast that ferments great wines at less than the normal conversion ratios or technology that will reduce alcohol without changing body, flavor or balance, we are stuck with that great bugaboo we call moderation. Sorry about that winelovers, but someone needs to tell you the truth. Now, perhaps we can get back to drinking great wine in whatever amounts our bodies and the law will allow. It is the price we pay for being winelovers.


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by TomHill
Posted on:2/21/2012 11:09:00 AM

"The newfound lust for low alcohol wines is about to destroy the wine business as we know it."

You didn't take your morning Valium, Charlie. The "destruction of the wine business as we know it" and the end of Western Civilization as we know it is not about to happen. So you needn't get your knickers in a knot.

   LouisMartini was exactly right...those wines don't exist. would be nice to have a nice Ridge Zin at 10%. You could even take one of the Geyservilles at 14.7% and RO it down to 10%....but I doubt that anybody would find the result drinkable. 

   OTOH.....if your post is about the recent trend/push to produce Calif wines w/ lower alcohol numbers (I can't see that it is), like those that are supported by JonBonne/PaxMahle/WellsGuthrie/JasonDrew (and myseld, to some extent)...then that's a whole nuther matter. But I presume that's not a hidden agenda in your post, Charlie??



I Worry
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:2/21/2012 12:05:26 PM


There are multiple messages here. The first is that the low-alcohol movement may know no bounds. The popular notion is that 14% is too high and that something under that is about right.

But look at the results of the polling. US consumers "say" they want wine under 12%.

Now, I happen to believe, in my snobby own way, that it is easy to say "under 12%" and not have the slightest idea what that will do to wine character. I am guessing that most people who profess a desire for such a result harbor the notion that wine will not change.

As you point out, and as I think I point out, it must change. Depth, character and balance all change when ripeness is reduced. Some of those changes are beneficial and Connoisseurs' Guide's choice of Freestone Chardonnay as admirable leaders in the 13.5% brigade does, I think, reflect the fact that the right site and the right combinations of viticulture and vinification can produce profound results at such alcohol levels.

But, you and I both doubt that we can get to 12% and under, and yet the poll results suggest that those levels are desired by consumers.

Sure, the intro paragraph was alarmist. This is "journalism" after all, not a university lecture course. :-} But, it not untrue that a shift to low alcohol across the board, especially to the levels preferred by the poll responsdents would represent something akin to the loss of great wine as we know it today.

by TomHill
Posted on:2/21/2012 5:18:40 PM

Hey....I got a great idea, least for Zinfandel. Let's go back to the early-'80's and the "food wine" movement. Maybe it'll work for these folks who want < 12% wines!!!!



"survey says...!"
by John
Posted on:2/21/2012 6:42:35 PM

People conducting these "surveys" are the worst sort of charlatans. I have not been exposed to any survey recently where it was not transparently obvious what result the questions were designed to skew to. Was there any control in the data set for what the survey respondents belive the average alcohol content of fine wine to actually be? Ask 1000 people who drink mostly beer and I bet my paycheck that the average number will be much lower than actual. Ask those same 1000 beer drinkers wha alcohol level the would prefer to see in wine - that they already don't drink - and of course they are going to give a low number.

Or let's phrase the question this way: "Some data suggest that alcohol is implicated in most traffic accidents, incidents of domestic violence, heart disease and birth defects. What is the appropriate level of alcohol in wine?"

Surveys, schmurveys.

The market is there
by Blake Gray
Posted on:2/21/2012 8:09:49 PM

Charlie: To be fair, the market is growing for lower alcohol wines. Muscat is hot; so is rose. Unoaked Chardonnays, usually lower alcohol than barrel-fermented for stylistic reasons, are also hot.

I agree that the survey had its flaws, notably that it seemed to be conducted by an organization that would benefit from increased interest in German Riesling.

But it is possible to have one's cake, and to eat one's, um, other cake. Lower alcohol wines and delicious Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon are NOT the same thing, it's true. But there's no reason one can't want both on different days, or even different courses of the same meal.

No Subject
by Randy
Posted on:2/21/2012 10:05:50 PM

As a perosnal winedrinking policy, I avoid drinking most wines over 14%.  There's too many grey areas for those 14.1% er's  and too many reasons to drink low alc wines.  It's about time the world's wine country comes BACK to their senses. You know the way it used to be...  traditional winegrowing, back-to-basics winemaking.  

You're a fool.
by J.B.
Posted on:2/21/2012 10:08:56 PM

"But there is a reason why our favorite wines do not exist at 10.5% to 12% alcohol. The do not taste as good at those levels. It is simply a matter of fact. One cannot find any grand Pinot or Cabernet or Chardonnay or Zinfandel at those kinds of alcohol levels."


Really? One cannot find ANY grand (by which I assume you are akwardy referring to Grand Cru?) Pinot Noir at 12% ABV? Umm, have you ever heard of- let alone opened a bottle of, ever had a glass of- Grand Cru Burgundy? Seems highly unlikely, friend. This is singularly the most ill-informed, most asnine, piece of writing I've ever found in a wine-related publication. It's be kind of amusing if it weren't so sad that a journal that purports to publish knowledgeable articles about wine, saw fit to print this... My opinion of the Connoisseurs' Guide has plummeted to absolute zero.



my oh my
by John
Posted on:2/21/2012 11:03:28 PM

Charlie you know you have really arrived when you attract this particular sort of pointless, pathetic internet trolling.

Who are we supposed to think "J.B." is? Our friend Jon Bonne? Hardly; Mr. Bonne knows that Mr. Olken has tasted his fair share of Grand Cru. Perhaps our friend Jean-Charles Boisset? <i>Jamais!</i> JCB is an urbane gentleman; never a boor.

So, thanks J.B. - whoever you are. I got a big laugh out of your sophomoric comment - I admit I still laugh at fart jokes too.

We Have Arrived
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:2/22/2012 12:38:38 AM

Hi John

I always wanted to arrive. But, I am already worried. Fame can be fletting.

German research
by Alexie
Posted on:2/22/2012 6:22:44 AM

It's probably no coincidence that German research shows consumers want low alcohol wines. Which country regularly produces wines that are 10% abv?

No Subject
by Randyd Caparoso
Posted on:2/22/2012 9:26:48 AM

Charlie, I wouldn't worry so much.  Although winemakers make wine the best way they can, consumers are the ultimate deciders;and clearly, the vast majority are deciding that they'll take a little "extra" alcohol in favor of greater flavor and intensity. 

If anything, should the low alcohol proponents hold sway, the wine business might end up a little like the beer business:  on one hand you have "light" beer drinkers who opt for weak flavor in order to get lower alcohol, and on the other you have "real" beer drinkers who care more about flavor and style than lightness.

I say, let the light wine drinkers have their say; the rest of us will enjoy our more flavorful wine as we always have...

German Study [sic]
by David Vergari
Posted on:2/22/2012 10:02:10 AM

I wince whenever I see "...a new study has shown...".  It's bad science a great deal of the time.

Bad Comments Always Happen After 9PM
by David
Posted on:2/22/2012 10:12:45 AM

Ain't dat da truth, J.B.?

Hit on the Head...
by PjM
Posted on:2/22/2012 10:49:54 AM

of the Nail, of course.  I agree Charlie and have confirmed that the optimum %/alcohol/volume is 13.1%.  You can still have good wines below that in the 10.5-12.5 range, but a great balanced wine really needs 13.1 or above.  It is also my experience that the majority of the wine drinking market (80% of drinkers) do not know a great wine, or what the effect alcohol has on any given wine, and because of this I think the wine market will survive with a few modifications (ie. take advantage of the /- 1% margins of % alcohol on the label as allowed by most governments). But your point is well taken since the perceived market intelligence of "what people want" can have a dramatic effect on the overall market offering.  The 20% of wine drinkers that do get your message, and understand the alcohol relationship in wine, will still be able to find great wines that don't follow the crowd to please the market. This debate will continue, but great wines will always be great wines and that means 13.1 % alc/vol.

No Subject
by Donn Rutkoff
Posted on:2/22/2012 11:12:47 AM

1.  Your first sentence is crap.

2.  You believe the PROWEIN "study"?  What, pray tell, scientific principle of research and statistical analysis did they employ?  Croaking frogs, or belching cowhorns?

3.  Did anybody tell all the Cabernet or Zin producers that they are 1 week away from bankruptcy?  Is Napa falling like space junk out of the sky?

It's Journalism, Dude
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:2/22/2012 11:34:33 AM


If the Prowein study has any validity at all, and if its conclusions are taken to their potential extremes, then the headline and the first sentence are entirely valid as starting point for my opinions on the subject.

If you happen to come back for a response, I hope you will look at the early comments above for further thoughts about the approach taken here.

Thanks for readiing. We do really need to pay attention to the issue and to do it from many vantage points. If there are ways to achieve great organoleptic pleasure from wine at lower alcohol levels, I suspect that no one will be against it.

No Subject
by Donn Rutkoff
Posted on:2/22/2012 12:52:18 PM

What % of wine drinkers even bother to read the stuff that is tossed around in the media?  Credibility of the media for anything other than "who died" is quite low among the mass consumers.  So who cares what the media and Prowein say?  Why do you bother to take it seriously?  What source do you have that indicates BUYING habits are seriously changing that would generate a useful article, not a hype/scare blog?  I love low abv wines, I talk them up all the time, but I don't see any validity to your opening paragraph.  You sound like Nostradamus or the commercial on TV with "The End of America

Me And Nostradamus
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:2/22/2012 1:58:51 PM

He is way ahead of me.

I do take the subject of low alcohol wine very seriously. On the one hand, Connoisseurs' Guide was ahead of the curve is asking for restraint in Zinfandel.

On the other, I find the "my way or the highway" attitude of the low-alcohol zealouts to be problematic and misleading. While I may disagree with you about how things could eventually shake out under a worst case scenario, I do not dismiss Prowein out of hand. They have put a lot more effort into generating their data than you have or I have and thus their findings, even if biased or flawed, do have standing.

This column contains intentional exaggeration. That is one way of lampooning the lunacy. You seem to agree that there is lunacy in the Prowein commentary. I find treating lunacy with exaggeration to be a legitimate way of dismissing it.

alcohol "research"
by Christian Miller
Posted on:2/22/2012 11:20:36 PM

Has anyone seen any details about the study or its methodology? Based on the few press articles I have seen, this looks like a classic piece of pseudo research, wherein someone asks “what level of alcohol do you prefer” on an open-ended basis or on a scale where people gravitate to the middle. If so, it probably doesn’t prove anything about how people perceive alcohol in their taste and usage, or how they actually choose wine. Or maybe this is just the usual press ignorance of statistics or scientific research on display. 

by TomHill
Posted on:2/23/2012 9:27:16 AM

"On the one hand, Connoisseurs' Guide was ahead of the curve is asking for restraint in Zinfandel."

Ohhh, epee we call this "easy target", Charlie. But...I'm on my good behavior not agonna get sucked into that one!!!



No brains in the morning
by Donn Rutkoff
Posted on:2/23/2012 8:47:17 PM

Hey Charlie, well, kick me in the head if I can't tell satire from whatever the hell this other stuff is.   I jumped all over you with not an ounce of humor in my veins.  But wait, did somebody just write Zin and restraint in the same sentence?  Oh lord, he comes Rod Serling.


On the serious side, to you ever travel to S Diego?  If so, lemme know.

Easy lowe alcohol remedy
by Julius
Posted on:2/24/2012 11:35:28 AM

There is a plain and simple remedy for all those profess such a powerful preferrence for lower alcohol wines......just add water!!!  

Morning Wine
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:2/24/2012 1:04:34 PM

I hear ya, Donn. Those early morning hangovers can be hell !!  :-}

thank you
by Sam
Posted on:2/29/2012 9:53:08 AM

Thank you for writing this. Too many people that write and comment on low alcohol are doing a disservice to the public these days.  They go on and on about how high alc is bad and low alc is good but rarely does anyone talk about where the alcohol in wine comes from. It comes from the sugar in the grapes. Those lush fruity wines that critics praise and consumers love are unlikely to coincide with low alcohol. Wines that are high in alcohol are not that way simply because the winemaker wants them that way.

No Subject
by matt bowen
Posted on:2/15/2013 8:53:03 PM

I discovered a couple of 10% reds are that are just fine and not even too sweet.

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