Farewell, Heavy Weights
The preference for lighter wines seems to be luring more and more fans each day. Is it because of their lower alcohol content or because of a better sugar-to-acidity ratio? The debate is burning like alcohol.
What once seemed like a short-lived fad has finally taken root and become a well-established trend. Consumers have fallen for a lighter and fruitier wine style with lower alcohol levels. This catchy new proposal has seriously eroded the dominance of the big blockbusters that ruled the wine scene from the 1990s onwards. The receding influence of the wine critic Robert Parker, who invariably chose broad shouldered wines for his highest scores, has surrendered to a new generation that values a more acidic, less adorned profile. The picture of heavy weights stealing the show with their tanned, ripped bodies has been replaced by one of a different genotype: firm bodies, yet lighter and definitely more graceful.
“This new trend is here to stay,” affirms Juan Alejandro Jofré, the winemaker who coined the term “Cool wines of the year”. “It all started as a niche thing, but it has quickly caught on with fans. People are yearning for lower alcohol and, in general, healthier products,” he adds.
30 years ago, Cabernet Sauvignon from Maipo barely exceeded 12o of alcohol. Grapes were harvested in March without much questioning, and they all went into the winery at the same time to fill the huge casks of raulí wood. Today, innovating is more like reviving the past, although with modern techniques and knowledge.
Back in the 1990s the so-called flying winemakers succeeded to impose a wine style and winemaking techniques ruled by the tyranny of wine gurus: ripe wines, lightly or plainly sweet, super concentrated and with a great presence of new wood.
This trend always had a wide base of opponents in Chile, mostly for fear of losing wine typicity (overripe grapes will always be over-ripe grapes), but nonetheless the recipe gained popularity through-out the country. Producers stressed their grapevines to the limit, waiting well into the fall to harvest the grapes before vinifying ultra thick and complex wines that emerged from a long post-fermentation maceration and featured a profusion of wood notes.
According to Julio Bastías, winemaker of Matetic, today the number of people looking for lighter and fresher wines has grown enormously. “Viticulture is adapting itself to the climate change, applying new techniques, harvesting earlier and looking for fresher fruit. Nobody (or almost) waits until the end of April to pick Cabernet Sauvignon anymore. That is simply insane. The current trend is to make wines that do not exceed 14o of alcohol. There is no turning back,” he sentences.
A HEALTHY LIFE
This new trend has a lot to do with promoting a healthier life. Today, winemakers not only go out for a jog in their free time; they adapt their wines to this new reality. For Andrea León, winemaker of Lapostolle, this has been a major factor. “The question of health and responsible drinking has somehow pushed the demand for these wines. Without question, this is a global trend,” she assures.
Some time ago, a study by the Basque Center on Cognition, Brain and Language (BCBL) used magnetic resonance to analyze the behavior of consumers towards the same wine with different levels of alcohol. According to its director Ram Frost, results are conclusive: “Wines with lower alcohol content concentrate the
brain’s attention on features such as aroma, smell and taste. The experiment shows that the brain experiences greater plea- sure with lower-alcohol wines.”
For Juan Aurelio Muñoz, winemaker of La Ronciere, wine consumption is directly linked to pleasurable sensations. “You just cannot drink the whole bottle. You don’ t drink to get drunk, but to have a good time. I personally like this new trend of wines with 13o of alcohol. They are fresh, fruity and not at all tiresome,” he explains.
TERROIR AND MANAGEMENT
Today, technology allows ridding the wine of some of its alcohol. Reverse osmosis is one example. However, Juan Aurelio Muñoz believes this does not make much sense if the idea is to make a wine that is a true reflection of its terroir.
“You may use any technique you want, but you will inevitably lose the magic. And that is certainly not what I want,” he says. “To produce wines with lower alcohol you need to find areas that are naturally cooler, like our vineyards in Idahue, towards the coast of Curicó. If you harvest grapes that are already ripe and then lower their alcohol artificially, you will end up with a sort of soup nobody will understand: sweet notes, green tannins, and acidity that seems totally out of place.”
Cristián Aliaga, winemaker of William Fèvre, also highlights the importance of the terroir to produce fresher wines. For example, the harvest window in Malleco, one of Chile’s southernmost wine regions, is very narrow, usually not more than a week. In 2014, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir were harvested on April 24-25, resulting in wines with 11.4o. The following year, the grapes were picked on the exact same dates, and the wines obtained had 12.6o. Despite the different seasons, the terroir is always a determining factor. “These wines will never be too complex or overcooked.You will never have these readings in Colchagua. If you want lower alcohol, simply move to another valley,” he explains.
But viticultural management remains vital to the obtainment of lighter and fresher wines. For the winemaker of Matetic, the secret lies in predicting the season better and managing stress reasonably. “We need to protect fruit better and irrigate only when necessary. Happy vines produce better wines. On the other hand, biological viticulture ensures a more aerated and livelier soil, with more water availability. This is crucial in coastal dry-farmed areas like San Antonio, where water is always scarce. Making wine is easier if you have a balanced vineyard. In general, wines will have a better natural expression and balance,” he points out.
For Julio Bastías, conventional management has killed many plants, as we have witnessed in Maipo and Casablanca. “So anything you might say is just nonsense if your plants are ill. Think of Maule, for instance. Maybe due to a lack of resources and without really knowing, growers have always used organic techniques there. And the plants are still there, after hundreds of years, alive like the first day and producing their grapes year after year under very ad– verse conditions. For the unconditional supporters of conventional viticulture this is a clear demonstration to the contrary,” he sentences.
In warmer areas like Colchagua, it is also possible to make wine with lower alcohol levels. For Maquis’s winemaker Rodrigo Romero, the grape cycle does not have to last 60 days after veraison, as many believe. It is perfectly possible to shorten this period in order to obtain fresher wines with good phenolic ripeness. “The grapes of an icon like Franco (Cabernet Franc) are harvested during the second week of March. In Maquis, the clayish soil over rock provides a very natural stressing environment for the vineyard.
No problem there. In Marchigüe, some vines grow on more restrictive sloping terrain, so we regulate via irrigation. The plants can go from green to ripe in a very short time. From veraison to harvest you hardly ever have more than 30 days. There is no need to wait too long,” he explains.
The cellar chores are also very important, he explains, as Franco undergoes very gentle fermentation at 21o, with racking only once a day. “The idea is to extract as little as possible and allow the wine to evolve slowly and naturally, just like Pinot Noir,” he concludes.
A QUESTION OF BALANCE
But low alcohol levels are not a priority for everyone. There is still some controversy there. For Sven Bruchfeld, winemaker and partner of Polkura, this is not a permanent trend, but just another cycle of the wine market. “In my 20 years in the industry, nothing has lasted more than a few years. Everything is cyclical. So I reckon that this demand for lower alcohol in wines will eventually come to a point of balance,” he affirms.
In his opinion, some winemakers will continue to produce wines with high alcohol levels, but with a big difference: no over-ripe notes. Wines with probable alcohol around 16o or 17o, which is reduced through a number of techniques like reverse osmosis, are gone forever. “If I have to drink a wine like those of 10 years ago I will be bored to death. Today we would not even be close to 90 points. That is definitely not an example to follow,” he says.
Phenolic ripeness is precisely the main concern with this type of wines. Sven Bruchfeld believes producing light and fresh wines is a positive thing, although tannins are a bit unruly for commercial wines (not for niche wines that have a different logic). He says not everybody possesses the knowledge to manage tannins successfully and he doubts the market is well prepared to understand these wines. They may even not be sustainable in the long run, except in very specific markets.
“I like a full-bodied wine without much alcohol. This is the style of our winery: no over-ripeness, no over-extraction and acidity to balance the components. I am not afraid of 14.5o or more. I have no problem with that. There are many wines with high alcohol levels out there, like Madeira, which is balanced and fresh. I am always at a very boring middle point. Worse, I am there by myself. Everyone else is going to extremes,” he jokes.
Andrea León points in the same direction. “The alcohol is- sue is not so relevant. I have released wines with lots of alcohol in them and they do just fine. Besides, we cannot go against history. We have wines like our dry-farmed Carignan from Maule that have high alcohol and a delicious balance. An- other example is our range of Elqui wines (Ms León vinifies a Mourvèdre from Alcohuaz for her Collection line). These wines are part of a story. They may have 15.5o and very low pH of 3.2 yet feel deliciously fresh,” she explains.
THE FINAL DEBATE
Ventisquero’s winemaker Sergio Hormazábal is not fully convinced that the demand for low-alcohol wines is a consolidated trend, even in markets that have allegedly pushed for this style through their critics and wine writers. “I have been in charge of the UK market for three months now, and having to negotiate with the British is not easy. They demand extraordinary quality, very low prices and all the papers in the world. They even ask for a Greenpeace certificate,” he jokes.
On the other hand, he insists the demand for a supposedly fresher and dryer style is a myth that is contrary to what most critics are stubbornly saying. They will never admit it, but wines with a big turnover volume contain higher sugar levels. They are sweet, without tannins and without edges, simply too “decaffeinated”. And most curious: with oak. This is what happens in the large retail chains like Tesco, Sainbury’s or Majestic. They say “I like Chardonnay, but you could add some more wood.” And I can’t help but wonder if I am selling to the US or the UK. This is simply amazing,” he says.
The case of high-end wines is very different. Ventisquero’s premium lines have placed their bet on spices, freshness and oak used very conservatively. “We have taken hold of that niche and we are not moving from there. It is the distinctive seal of our winery. Alcohol is probably the least of our concerns. I have been doing the same for the last 8 years: Rosé with 12o, Sauvignon Blanc with 12.5o and Chardonnay with 13o. Nobody has asked me for a Sauvignon Blanc with 11o,” he adds.
That seems to be the key. According to Juan Aurelio Muñoz, wines that are high in alcohol also have a niche of their own. The usual mistake is to always go with the market flow instead of developing a distinctive style. “Each winery has its own identity, a concept that singles it out. The goal is that critics and consumers eventually understand what lies behind each individual project,” he explains.
For Juan Alejandro Jofré, producing low-alcohol wines is simply nonsensical. “It has nothing to do with the figures, but with overall balance. And I personally prefer a more acidic that sweet balance. That is what I try to convey with my wines, regardless of whether they come from a warmer place like Curicó or a cooler wine like the new Sauvignon Blanc/Sauvignonasse from Los Queñes… I have totally forgotten how to make those wines of the 90s. I would not even drink them now. There is no turning back,” he sentences.
Some consumers, he says, are very appreciative of how easy it is to drink these lighter and fresher wines. Others need further guidance, as they still associate alcohol and wood with quality. “I simply adapt the place to what I seek to achieve, not imitate what my neighbors are doing. I do not mean to be arrogant, but unfortunately many winemakers are making hideous beverages just because they need to follow the rules set by their employer. But real pride comes when your style is recognized. In my personal case, as a small producer, it is not some sort of indulgence. It is a must,” he concludes.
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