“Sod the wine, I want to suck on the writing. This man White is an instinctive writer, bloody rare to find one who actually pulls it off, as in still gets a meaning across with concision. Sharp arbitrage of speed and risk, closest thing I can think of to Cicero’s ‘motus continuum animi.’

Probably takes a drink or two to connect like that: he literally paints his senses on the page.”

DBC Pierre (Vernon God Little, Ludmila’s Broken English, Lights Out In Wonderland ... Winner: Booker prize; Whitbread prize; Bollinger Wodehouse Everyman prize; James Joyce Award from the Literary & Historical Society of University College Dublin)





11 February 2014



Australia's big alcohol problem
Stop counting at 14.5 per cent
Excise/honesty better way to go? 

Have you ever wondered why all the red wine in Australia is 14.5% alcohol?

Don't.  Because it's not. It just says that on the labels.

In reality, many wines claiming that 14.5 figure are actually 16%.  In making their alcohol claims, Australian wineries are permitted an error margin of 1.5% either side of the number they nominate.

So when you see red admitting to 16%, it could actually be 17.5.

This is not good sense during a proho wowser uprising like we currently endure internationally.

Alcohol numbers crept steadily upwards through the late 'nineties and the noughties, as Australian red makers strove to please the ridiculously influential USA wine critic, Robert Parker Jr.  He recommended a few strong wines and eventually gave some of them his perfect score of 100/100.  Envious Ocker redsters wrongly thought these wines had won the impossible number simply because their alcohol was high, so they began leaving their Shiraz on the vines a bit longer, and up crept the strength, usually at the expense of delicacy and gastronomic art.

Put simply, winemakers began selling us bottles of highly alcoholic jam, and forgot how to make wines of balance and finesse.

Assisted by the Global Warming our Prime Minister claims to be 'crap', this fad eventually spread worldwide. Even the French saw their alcohols soar in the blistering 2003 vintage, the hottest in 500 years, when 14,802 people died of heat, and Bordeaux reds were suddenly as fashionably alcoholic as the Ocker fruitbombs the Bordelaise had derided.

If Earth has a scribe you could call the opposite of the semi-retired Parker, that'd be Jancis Robinson, the British expert.  Jancis raised a few hackles recently when she repeated leading Rhône winemaker and industry kingpin Michel Chapoutier's suggestion that the solution to this soaring alcohol was to add water to the wines.
'The southern Rhône is too warm for Syrah,' Chapoutier had said. 'Of course we don't want to reduce the alcohol by physical means. If you use reverse osmosis to reduce the alcohol, you sacrifice some of the aromas. When you physically concentrate the grape must, you concentrate everything - including less desirable aspects. So how about simply adding back the water lost by evaporation? If you harvest on the basis of the ripeness of tannins in Grenache you risk having wines at 15.5 or 16% alcohol at least. We experimented and found that adding water did actually result in better wines.'

Claiming, with typical Gallish arrogance that he was the ' only one to actually talk about it', Chapoutier went on to say 'lots of winemakers do it, and I think we should make it legal and bring it out in the open. It's the future of wine ... I love to make a tasting of 2003s, adding a little water to them - they're much better.'

As he has attempted for many years to make wines in Australia, I wouldn't be surprised to discover that M. Chapoutier was triggered to speak by things he learnt here, where 'the black snake' - the water hose - has always been a key part of the sensitive winemaker's arsenal.

That's a silly thing to say, but how we let the snake slither from our official public memory is not simply the result of the fashion.  In Australia, like France, the addition of water to grape must is illegal.

When the late Mick Knappstein addressed the throng at the centennial anniversary of the revered Wendouree winery in Clare in 1995, he reminded us that the former winemaker there, Roly Birks, also deceased, 'was a very honest winemaker, in as much as you knew what he did. You’d see on the head of his vats ... so many buckets of Mataro, many buckets of Shiraz, or even Malbec. He blended his wines at the crusher ... It always had at the head of the vats what the additions were. If the grapes were very ripe it would say how much water went in. Now you know, not many winemakers would do that... He was honest!'

You'd be very hard put finding any watery flavours in any old Wendouree, no matter how far back you went.  These fabulous wines are items of incredible intensity, finesse, respect and increasing value.

Among the cognoscenti, elegance and balance was always paramount. When Max Schubert wrote his recipe for Grange on the long flight back from his famous 1950 trip to Europe, he declared the fruit should be picked at between 11.5 and 12 degrees Baumé, meaning the wines would end up with those percentages of alcohol.  Anybody with the incredible fortune to have tasted those 1950s Granges at around thirty years of age would not be complaining of their finesse.  My favourite was the '54, perhaps the lightest of them all.

Australia is hotter than the Rhône, which M. Chapoutier says 'is too warm for Syrah.'

'Of course we don't want to reduce the alcohol by physical means,' he told Robinson. 'If you use reverse osmosis to reduce the alcohol, you sacrifice some of the aromas. When you physically concentrate the grape must, you concentrate everything - including less desirable aspects. So how about simply adding back the water lost by evaporation? ... We experimented and found that adding water did actually result in better wines.'

Professor Julian Alston, a wine economist from the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine Economics at the University of California was here last week discussing the same topic, quoting data from Ontario's Liquor Control Board, which includes some 80,000 observations from twenty vintages. He reports a 10 per cent rise in wine alcohol, internationally, and suggested Australia should consider this, especially given the flexibility in the margin of error most Australian winemakers take advantage of.

Typically, Steve Guy, regulation manager for Wine Australia dismissed this claim when quizzed by the ABC's Matthew Doran. In spite of the increasing tendency to claim alcohols are lower than they actually are, Guy retorted 'We certainly haven't seen evidence of that, and really see no motivation for wine producers to use the tolerance in such a fashion ... I think it's a recognition that wine is a natural product, and from year to year, the same vineyard can produce wine of differing alcohol depending on the climate that year.

'There's been a trend in Australia perhaps to produce wine of a slightly lower alcohol content than might have been the case maybe, say 10 years ago,' he continued. 'This is just fashion, and I think wine makers are responding to a perceived need for producing products that are more food friendly perhaps.'

This followed feisty wine industry blogger, Dudley Brown urging on his site The Wine Rules  that it would be to Australia's advantage to 'make Australia’s wine labelling rules the toughest in the world.'

'Let's say a variance of +/-0.3% of alcohol by volume instead of the current +/- 1.5%,' this former President of the McLaren Vale Winemakers wrote. 'By doing just this, we will send a message to the world that we are winemakers who take our products, and our customers’ health and education, very seriously.'

Such a move would surely push us back towards admitting the need for a bit of the old Black Snake, as M. Chapoutier thoughtfully reminds us. I'm keen to see what his former General Manager, Pierre-Henri Morel does when he comes to work at Two Hands.

But such a tightening could also push alcohols down by tax.  Currently, wine is taxed via the Wine Equalisation Tax and its much rorted rebate. This levels its impost on the value of the product, not its strength.  As there are constant and increasing calls to have this dumped so all booze can be taxed on the amount of alcohol it contains, by excise, as is imposed on beer and spirits, Australian drinkers could expect a very quick return to elegance and finesse.

Presuming, of course, our winemakers can remember how to achieve it. 



Charlie VV said...

Thanks for your article, which I enjoyed. You’ve opened some big topics here, which I see is your vocation! I’d like to put my 2 cents in, if you don’t mind.

Allowing winemakers to open the taps into their vats means changing the century old definition of wine. This definition is currently, to paraphrase slightly, “fermented juice of fresh grapes” (plus authorised oenological aides).

If water is authorised, could wine then be made from water + dried grapes? From last years’ vintage or older? From another country, another continent where grapes can be grown cheaper?

Who would this favour? Perhaps the massive conglomerates that now control the beer industry. Probably not M. Chapoutier, nor Australian wine-only companies, and certainly not modestly sized Australian farmers, nor any modestly sized farmer on the planet for that matter.

I fear that if we go there, perhaps we will wipe out that one beautiful specificity of the wine community which stops wine from being created as a purely industrial product - the grape farmer and his old vine heritage.

On another note, I have become increasingly disappointed with what I feel is a regrettable trend in Australian wine. Increased ripeness and alcohol, “balanced” out by acid rectification (by various means). The result is often a heavy, jammy or alcoholic product with late-braking, unintegrated, off-putting acidity. This is not the solution either!

Therefore, I totally agree with your comment on taxes! There’s no need to change the wine definition. Lets fix the tax regime, and finesse will return. That way Australia can focus on the race it perhaps has a chance to compete in – that of quality, not low price and high volume.

Simon Burnell said...

Hmmmm Charlie VV.
The current tax regime might be nuts - encouraging abuse of the environment and attracting the full-blown alcos to wine (away from whatever else would otherwise be the cheapest grog), but you seriously think it's the best lever to pull to influence Aus wine styles? At least you're obviously not in the Tea-Party!
Wines are already made from "another country, another continent where grapes can be grown cheaper". They're called imports and are labelled accordingly so the consumer knows what they are getting. Some of them are really good too.
Despite having read the article, you may still be shocked to hear that many of Australia's greatest ever red wines (and some whites) benefitted from some balancing out by a little post-harvest irrigation. I'm certain that many you have enjoyed have also.
It's a bit like sodomy - you can make it illegal, but it won't stop people doing it. Probably not the best analogy, but gave me a pun I couldn't resist making.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Simon for clearing a few points up for me/us! And good on you for "coming out"! (I don't mean the sodomy). But seriously, I understand that as a winemaker in Australia you are surely faced with the practical aspects and real choices when trying to transform our harsh climate into a good drink. Respect to you.

I am not a winemaker, but am pretty familiar with imported / non-Australian wines. My point there was more about the transport of dry ingredients (i.e. +/- sultanas) from one country to another to make wine in an (even more) industrial logic. This would be to the detriment of a lot of wine-drinkers and wine makers I reckon.

You see, I am not so much barracking for creating any particular "style" in winemaking. I am more interested in free expression of climate and land, not obfuscated by oenology, dry yeast, acid and water. I am also for a wine community where commercial size is not all that dictates survival.

It seems that the micro-brewed beer world has perhaps benefitted from the over expansion of the big brewers. But wine is not beer! Grapes grow once a year at a pretty high cost compared to hops and barley. Small winegrowers need some level of protection, not complete liberalisation... I reckon...