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An Investigation of Alcohol Levels of California & Oregon Pinot Noir since 2004

In 2008, I wrote about the considerable discussion of hang times, sugar levels and alcohol percentages in wines including Pinot Noir from California. Pinot Noir wines with alcohol percentages approaching or exceeding 15% were not unusual. The allure of alcohol in wine is that it contributes body, texture, intensity and sweetness that make the fruit in wine seem fuller and broader. Since alcohol is a solvent, higher alcohol can extract more flavor out of skins, pips and oak barrels.

To accomplish maximum flavor development, grapes are left to hang long into the growing season with the result that sugar accumulation (Brix) increases markedly. High sugar, of course, translates into high alcohol percentage (ABV) in the finished wines. For every gram of sugar that is converted to alcohol during fermentation about half a gram of alcohol is produced. The alcohol conversion factor can be between 0.55 to 0.64. Grapes picked at 22.5º will have a potential ABV of 13.0, while grapes picked at 25.8º will translate to an ABV of 15.1.

Many notable wine critics pointed out the significant rise in alcohol levels over the decades prior to 2008. A study in California showed that average alcohol levels in wine rose from 12.7% in 1971 to 14.8% in 2001, the result of the average Brix at harvest increasing from 20.5º in 1971 to 24.2º in 2001.

California had become a leader in higher alcohol wines due to several factors but primarily the warm climate, viticultural advances, low yields, more efficient yeasts that survive at higher levels of alcohol and the high scores that this style of wine garnered from wine critics, the so-called “Parker effect.” Studies have shown that climate is not as significant as the demand for more intense or riper-flavored wines. The result was more sales of wine and resultant economic success.

Two popular technologies for reducing alcohol levels in wine were in wide use with reportedly half of all California wines said to undergo some type of technological alcohol reduction. Vinovation championed the process of reverse osmosis beginning in 1992 and ConeTech introduced the Spinning Cone Column (SCC) in 1991. ConeTech claimed the SCC technology-enabled precise adjustment of the wine’s alcohol level while achieving the “sweet spot” between 12% and 14% that resulted in wines of balance without changing the wine’s natural flavor. Vintners would typically reduce the alcohol in a portion of the vintage and then blend that reduced-alcohol wine back into the unreduced wine to achieve a more ideal alcohol percentage (ABV). Alcohol adjustment continues to this day but no one willingly talks about it for fear the consumer would judge the wine as inferior.

Other options to reduce alcohol levels available to vintners include filtering and diluting the wine with water. With Pinot Noir, in particular, these procedures often sacrifice flavor and mouthfeel and significantly change the structure of the wine.

Looking back over recent vintages of California Pinot Noir, I have observed a trend toward lower alcohol levels in wines in general and particularly Pinot Noir, I have observed this because I pay serious attention to the ABV in Pinot Noirs I purchase for personal pleasure, preferring those wines below 14.0% ABV. These wines have more appealing aromatic profiles that are not dulled by very ripe fruit, more desirable acidity and resultant juiciness, and are simply more nuanced and pleasurable. Alcohol has no taste per se, but at higher levels, it can overpower the palate. It also leads to alcoholic warmth or “devil’s spit” that accompanies many Pinot Noir wines over 14.5% ABV. Allowing for TTB regulations that permit a 1.0% inaccuracy in wines over 14.0% ABV, many of these hefty 14.5% and above ABV labeled Pinot Noir wines are actually well over 15% ABV. Wines can have and often do have significantly more alcohol than the stated percentage on the label. I love the quote by Ron Washam HMW: “Taking the alcohol listed on the label seriously is like believing the guy’s height or the woman’s weight on The wine is always going to be shorter and fatter than you expected.”

Surveys have indicated that alcohol levels are usually not a factor when consumers choose a wine. Many wine drinkers do not even realize that the alcohol percentage in the bottle is written in tiny print on the front or back label. Considering this, maybe it is a moot point to argue about the merits of higher versus lower alcohol in Pinot Noir. Some consumers even equate high alcohol with quality. Others are unfazed by higher alcohols because tolerance is determined genetically. 50% of the population have one dominant and one recessive gene for taste and are termed “regular” tasters. They choose moderate flavors and are only mildly sensitive to tannin, sugar and high alcohol. 25% of the population are recessive for both genes and are called “non-tasters.” They prefer intense tastes, sweet wines and heavy alcohol. The remaining 25% have two dominant genes for taste and are termed “supertasters.” They prefer softer flavors in wine and disdain sweet wines, heavy tannins and high alcohol. There are a greater number of women and Asians who are supertasters.

Some writers have pointed out that vintners have gone a little too far in avoiding overly alcoholic wines. Australian James Lawrence posted in on September 9, 2020, “The problem today isn’t a rash of alcoholic fruit bombs, it’s the rise of underripe, charmless wines. Some growers are attempting to subjugate terroir and make lighter wines in spite of what nature is throwing at them. We’ve swapped alcoholic monsters for mean-spirited, sulky wines.”

I agree with Lawrence that I am now seeing examples of California Pinot Noir with alcohol levels in the 12.0 to 12.5 range and some of these wines are simply too lean and austere for my taste. Vegetal notes are evident because the grapes have been picked before physiological ripeness. The wines are extremely acid-driven and may risking appeal to the consumer that likes body and sweetness fruit in wine.

Oregon Pinot Noir has not typically been overly alcoholic except in some unusually hot vintages such as 2003, 2006 and 2012. In cooler vintages, Oregon Pinot Noir barely averages 13.0% ABV. The classic growing season climate in Oregon is generally more compatible with lower Brix at harvest and higher acidity.

I tallied the ABV of all of the California and Oregon Pinot Noir wines I reviewed from 2004 through 2018 vintages for California and 2004 through 2017 vintages for Oregon and digested the statistics. I believe this data is unique since I was the first wine critic to include ABV in my reviews dating back to 2004, something that other popular wine magazines have now incorporated into their wine reviews. When available, I used the ABV stated on the wine’s tech sheet rather than the label but they are often the same.

What conclusions can we draw from this study?

    (1) Over the 14-year period surveyed from 2004 to 2018, the average ABV of California Pinot Noir decreased by about 1.0%. The drought years of 2011-2019 may have played a role in this decrease although the growing seasons during this time period have become warmer due to climate change. The decrease hints, but does not prove, that wineries and winemakers through viticulture, picking decisions and winemaking have made a concerted effort to decrease ABV of California Pinot Noir in more recent vintages. Pinot Noir wines with a high ABV above 14.0% are often labeled as less than the true ABV since up to a 1.0% reduction is allowable under TBB regulations as long as the ABV is kept above 14.0%. This allows wineries to fudge a bit to avoid the undesirable perception of higher alcohol content.

    (2) Over the 13 year period surveyed from 2004 to 2017 (I did not have enough 2018 Oregon reviews for statistical significance but it should be noted that this was a very warm growing season), the average ABV of Oregon Pinot Noir showed no decrease, but rather a variability based on the climate during the vintage growing season. Very cool growing seasons like 2010 that had a very low GDD (Growing Degree Days or heat summation) of 1,722 and 2011 that had a low GDD of 1,794 led to a significant decrease in average ABV. Very warm growing seasons like 2006 (GDD of 2,176) and 2009 (GDD of 2,095) had a significant increase in the average ABV. Heat summation as determined by the GDD system is not the full story with regards to vintage grape ripening but it is a general measure of ripening and vintages with lower GDD will produce less ripe grapes, lower Brix and lower ABVs and vintages with higher GDD will lead to less ripe grapes, lower Brix and lower ABVs.

    (3) If the range of ABV of all reviewed wines for the different appellations that specialize in Pinot Noir in California are examined, the number of wines at or above stated 14.8% ABV has decreased over the 14- year vintage period further supporting my hypothesis.

    (4) A line chart below displays the average ABV for 2004-2018 in each major California AVA. There is a trend toward lower average ABV over the vintages studied although there is variation secondary to vintage.

The fly in the soup here is that a significant number of California wineries use alcohol reduction through Cone Tech but never reveal this. Could the decrease in ABV over the years in this study be due in part to increased use of alcohol reduction by wineries? It is probably unlikely for Pinot Noir but there is no way to know.

Do alcohol levels in wine matter? Higher alcohol wines will surely get you sideways a lot quicker. The more alcohol in a Pinot Noir, the more rapidly it is absorbed because the alcohol overwhelms the ADH enzymes in the stomach that break down alcohol. Do higher alcohol wines provide more pleasure? An MRI study of the brain published in PLOS One in March 2015 compared the reactions of human subjects to matched pair of red wines of high and low alcohol content. It was found that significantly greater activation in the brain regions responsible for flavor processing and food reward was found for low-alcohol wines compared to high alcohol wines. The authors of the studied concluded that low alcohol wine induced greater “attentional exploration of aromas and flavors.”

One thing is for sure is that ABV does matter when you are looking to drink in moderation. Most informed doctors would recommend scaling back the volume of wine drinking when imbibing a wine with a higher alcohol percentage, say above 14.5%, or reaching for a lower alcohol wine to insure that you stay within the confines of “moderation” to avoid the detrimental health risks associated with heavy alcohol intake.

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