Are high alcohol wines falling out of favor?

That’s the subject of a story I wrote for the Beverage Media trade magazine, and the answer, surprisingly, was yes. The consensus among the wine industry types I interviewed was that more and more consumers prefer lower alcohol wines and the industry, for several reasons, is ready to give it to them.

The owner of a high-end wine shop in Dallas was just as surprised as I was: ?I don’t know quite why it’s happening, but I do know my customers want to drink lighter,” Harris Polakoff told me. “It ramped up this summer, but it has been going on for at least a year. Their palates are changing, and I’ve had to change the way I buy wine.”

Which may be a revolutionary development, given how much a part of wine high alcohol has been for more than a decade.The lower alcohol movement has its roots in the push against wine scores, which critics like Dan Berger said rewarded winemakers for making high alcohol wines to get a better score and not because it made better wine. Sommeliers like Rajat Paar, winery owners like Jasmine Hirsch, and retailers like Darrell Corti joined the effort. The latter was so serious about it that he stopped buying wine for his upscale Sacramento grocery, Corti Brothers, that had more than 14 percent alcohol.

But that’s just part of what happened:

• Cooler growing seasons in California, the epi-center of high alcohol wine, over the past couple of years. Cooler weather means less ripe grapes, which means it’s more difficult and more expensive get high alcohol in wine.

• Declining influence of those critics who rewarded high alcohol wines with high scores. Younger consumers don’t always know who they are and don’t necessarily have the money to buy the wines they like, even if they would know who they are.

• The recession. High alcohol wines, as noted, are usually more expensive, and we know what happened to expensive wine during the recession.

• Changing palates. Consumers, and especially younger consumers, are more willing to experiment, says Jensen Cummings of Denver ?s Row 14 Bistro & Wine Bar. They’re looking for different wines, be it local or unusual varietals, than they used to.

One thought on “Are high alcohol wines falling out of favor?

  • By Pat Kennedy - Reply

    Hello Jeff,
    Good comments about high alcohol wines, but you did miss an important point: Balance. When I’m tasting wine, I look for that critical balance between acid, resisidual sugar and alcohol. A 12% Riesling with 3% RS and the right amount of acid tastes just fine to me, not too sweet. A 13.8% Merlot with less than 1% RS, bold tannin structure and relartively low acid, also tastes just about right. On occation, a monster Zinfandel with 16% alcohol can be rather enjoyable if i get a fruit forward charactorist in the intial taste. Unfortuneatly, many high alcohol wines are out of balance in my opinion and simply taste “hot”. What do you think?

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