Whether you come from the corner liquor store or the more venerable “terroir,” the glass of red wine in your hand is getting stronger.
Critics have long pointed to the trend, but now data from the Liv-ex fine wine market confirms that the alcohol content of thousands of vintages has been rising over the past 30 years.
In the period, the average alcohol content rose on average from just under 14% to much more in wines from the regions of California, Piedmont, Tuscany, Rhône, and Rioja. Red wine from Rioja saw an increase in alcohol content from 13.1% in 1995 to 14.5% in 2018.
Climate change has been driving that shift, said Tom Gearing, chief executive of Cult Wines, a fine wine investment company. “The key feature has been climate change. Grapes produce a higher sugar content when the climate is warmer, and this leads to a higher alcohol content”.
Extreme weather events can leave their marks on specific vintages. A severe heat wave in South Australia in 2005, for example, led to a spike in alcohol content.
But another driver is consumer preferences and wineries adapting to those preferences, said Anthony Maxwell, director of Liv-ex.
Many of the consumers of the 1990s favored “old-style clarets” with lower alcohol content, he said, “but then New World wines came in as an influence, and they were more mature and contained a little more sugar. Then we got another push with the ‘Robert Parker effect’.”
“That wine critic [Parker] he had phenomenal power and influence. And I tended to like more mature and concentrated wines,” Maxwell said.
Parker wrote the Wine Advocate, a wine newsletter published in the United States, and gained fame by becoming one of the first people to praise the controversial 1982 vintage of Bordeaux reds, a very hot, sunny and dry year.
Its 100-point ranking ranking was widely adopted, leading critics to coin the term “parkerization” as wineries began adapting their products to gain more points in Parker’s rankings — even though the American oenophile himself always has rejected that idea. Still, in the Parker era, ripe, robust wines became the norm.
Liv-ex compiled data on 17,000 wines whose labeled alcoholic strengths were recorded as part of a process to generate export commodity codes.
The rise in alcohol content among Bordeaux wines was both firm and pronounced, advancing by more than one percentage point between the 1990s and 2010 to reach 14%.
“In Bordeaux at that time, there was probably an effort to try to produce more mature wines,” Maxwell said.
“This, combined with global warming, has led some of the wineries in southern Bordeaux to feel the city’s influence,” he said. The city of Bordeaux itself generates heat, raising the temperature of nearby vineyards.
Winemakers can affect the maturity of their grapes by manipulating the timing of harvest, the coverage of the vines or the proportion of “green harvest”, ie, removal of grapes from a vineyard.
Chaptalization, which adds sugar before fermentation, raises the alcohol content, and culture yeast can allow for a more efficient conversion of sugar to alcohol.
While Liv-ex’s data reflects fine wines, experts say the trend is similar in the mass market.
Australian group Accolade Wines, which produces brands such as Hardys and Banrock Station, said the alcohol content on the market “has grown marginally in recent decades.” Nigel Sneyd, Accolade’s global director of wine and quality, added that “this is a global trend.”
Loire and Rioja wines also show a substantial increase in alcohol content, according to Liv-ex, and reds from California, Piedmont and Tuscany became significantly stronger in the 1990s and 2000s, but their alcohol content after that. if leveled or came to fall.
The alcohol content is generally much more constant in white wines than in reds. “In the case of white wines, the grapes tend to be harvested earlier, and are grown in slightly cooler climates. The alcohol content is lower by its very nature,” said Maxwell.
Likewise, champagne makers harvest the grapes early to maintain the acidity, and this keeps the alcohol content relatively low.
Sneyd said the alcohol content was unlikely to continue rising. “A higher alcohol content brings a palate imbalance, so a significantly higher alcohol content would require the use of technology to compensate for that,” he said.
There is also a kind of market reaction to the trend towards thicker reds, which has been going on for a few decades.
Maxwell links the stabilization of the alcohol content of reds in certain regions —such as Saint-Émilion in Bordeaux— to the retirement of Parker, who left the post of editor-in-chief of his newsletter in 2012 and retired completely in 2019.
“There was a movement that ‘maybe we don’t want wines like that, more and more ripe, and we’re going to harvest again sooner,’” Maxwell said. “There is a health issue, too. Today people pay more attention to the alcohol content”. Accolade says consumers are increasingly looking for low-alcohol or non-alcoholic wines.
And in some regions, especially in more variable European climates, the focus has shifted to mitigating the effects of climate change, using methods like slower, cooler fermentation, Gearing said.
“Many winemakers are now adopting practices to control the alcohol content and ensure it’s not too high,” he said.
Translation by Paulo Migliacci