The Rise and Fall of Cabernet - Printable Version

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- wineglut - 02-28-2004 05:28 PM

My first instinct is to start posting here with a rant. But in that I am a newbee here and having reached an advanced level of maturity I think it would be better for me to save that for later. So a question for the board.

I have been bothered by an increasingly difficulty drinking Cabernets that are made in the new style. I have not had a “fruit forward” Cabernet or Claret that was much under 14% alcohol in quite a while. I’ve had many recently that exceeded 15% alcohol, one was 16.5%.

I drink a couple glasses and I don’t want anymore. Maybe it’s just self preservation, but they don’t seem to have any life to them. They are black in color, have a lot of fruit in the aroma, but show no varietal character, are monsters in tannin which is conveniently hidden by the high alcohol. (The headache is started just writing about them.)

I happened across an old notebook of mine in which I had kept reports I had written in the early 70’s summarizing sensory and chemical analysis of wines. Many of the reports were comparative tastings of hundreds of wines made in the late ‘60’s What struck me, besides how bad typewriters were back then and bad our tables looked, was the alcohol levels on these wines. (prices included just for fun)

1967 Beaulieu Private Reserve $5.25 11.1 %
1967 Mayacamas Cabernet $4.50 11.1%
1967 Inglenook Cask Cabernet $5.75 11.4%
1966 Ducru-Beaucaillou $5.99 11.9%
1967 Ch. Haut-Bataillay $3.70 11.8%
1967 Louis Martini Cabernet $2.50 11.2%
1967 St. Michelle Cabernet $2.69 10.7%

That was just one tasting from 1971. I won’t bore you with more, but isn’t it astounding where we were then and where we are today? I am actually describing varietal aromas and flavors in my tasting notes.

I yearn for the good old days when I could polish off a couple of bottles of wine with dinner and actually function the next day. Am I the only one that is bothered by this?

no ranting yet,

- winoweenie - 02-28-2004 07:06 PM

Wineglut welcome to the board. No, you're not the Lone Ranger here Kimo-Sabe. Been doing the preaching along with the late,great founder of this board, Jerry Mead. Still some of the older producers who still make balanced, beautiful Juice. Welcome aboard. WW

- hotwine - 02-28-2004 08:52 PM

You're not alone, WG, and welcome to the board. Those prices are sure enough to make a grown man cry!

- Tastevin - 02-29-2004 11:17 AM

Hello Wineglut. You certainly are not alone. I think higher alc. levels are here to stay. Here's a few levels of some of my wines - 2001 Ch. Leoville-Las-Cases - 13%; 1994 Ch. Leoville-Las-Cases - 12.5%;1997 Ch. Branaire Ducru - 13%; Basic N.V. Red Burgundy - 12.5%; 1997 Hautes Cotes de Nuits - 12.5%; 2000 Macon Blanc Solutre - 13%; Basic N.V. Bourgogne Blanc - 13%. Made the mistake of asking my good lady to look at the bottles for the info., 'no wonder you're always sloshed' she said (bless her).

- Innkeeper - 02-29-2004 11:24 AM

Am not denying that alcohol levels in far too many cases is rising to alaming levels, but at least we know how much alcohol is in a wine in most cases. It was not so long ago that every bottle of wine in world said 12.5% on the label. Why? Because this is the level that table wines were required to be. Do you believe that all that wine was exactly 12.5%? Do you believe in the Easter Bunny?

- micpic8 - 02-29-2004 01:00 PM

Actually Innkeeper - French & Italian winemakers put as low as possible alcohol level on the bottle, (yes unbelieavable, because they were the same every year) because they were taxed based on alcohol level of the wine. If the bottles were ever tested you would find that the alcohol level was much higher some years. Those tax laws have changed in recent years and some winemakers are starting to put the true level on the bottle.

- wineguruchgo - 02-29-2004 01:36 PM

I'm surprised about the 16+% on the bottle. I thought that once you hit 15% you were taxed in the Porto level.

I also think that is why the Europeans drink considerably more than we do. Given the % of alcohol in the bottle (11%vs15%) they aren't getting as hammered as we are.

Wineglut I would also like to welcome you to the board. We love opinions such as yours. I'm curious, % of alcohol taken out of the equation, do you think the wines of today are better than the wines of the late 60's/early 70's? Being that I didn't start drinking wine until the mid 80's and then it was the Germanic Varietals out of NYS, I really can't do a comparison.

Just curious.

- Thomas - 02-29-2004 01:58 PM

Wineglut, I am with you all the way. Seems the latest in culture is to pile it on, including alcohol and extract. Subtlety and finesse are out of style.

IK, you may be right about the old days but I will say again what I have posted many times before:

Every wine producer in America, and every producer exporting to America, has 1.5% legal leeway, plus or minus, in the alcohol level stated on the label. That is so because it is difficult to measure alcohol accurately, and expensive too. Imagine: 12.5 could be as low as 11 or as high as 14--BIG difference.

The words Table Wine, in America, is a legal way of obfuscating the issue. If a producer can't measure the alcohol at all, then those two words can be used on the label in place of a %. That is because the definition of table wine inlcudes alcohol between, I believe, 8 and 15%.

- wineglut - 02-29-2004 07:18 PM

winoweenie - I had no idea about the origin of this board. I met Jerry when he was still a police dispatcher in OC and married to Linda...doing a newletter on the side. Lost touch when he went out of state.

My problem with the high alcohol style is worsened by the fact that the best vineyards seem to choose it in order to get the big points in the WS and Parker. I feel deprived of the wonderful qualities of their fruit.

- wineglut - 02-29-2004 07:25 PM

Tastevin - An old timer, bordeaux winemaker once told me that if not corrected by sugar the average alcohol in Bordeaux would be 11.2. I think that was before better clones and Pinaud and the use of reverse osmosis...all of which have elevated quality.

- wineglut - 02-29-2004 07:27 PM

Thanks, Hotwine At the time, I was earning $650 a month and they looked pretty expensive.

- wineglut - 02-29-2004 07:32 PM

Innkeeper Your right. In the 70's wine marketers lied about the alcohol on the high side thinking people would think they were getting more for their money. Today they lie on the low side because they are embarrassed at how high an alcohol the wine is carrying. Actually, a lot of people used the 12.5% because 1.5% on either side was a range they always met and meant that they didn't have to change the art on the label each time they printed. More laziness than deceit.

- wineglut - 02-29-2004 07:45 PM

wineguruchgo - generally, I think the wines are better. Today Rosemounts $6.99 Cabs/Shiraz blends would probably rank higher than the average classified claret or good Napa Cab of the sixties. But the wines that carried terrior were maybe a little more interesting and identifiable back then and less interesting and more uniform now. Today they taste like they were made for a single critic's palate. (Could that be true?)
And though Chardonnay has become a cliche, most wines the under $10 category today would have beaten the top Chardonnays in the market. Fine tuning of ML, lees contact and use of oak extract didn't exist then.

- wineglut - 02-29-2004 08:05 PM

foodie - I have a nineteenth century ebuilliometer with a hand made hand etched thermometer. It is reads directly in alcohol and is accurate to plus or minus 0.1% if calibrated correctly and often.

There's not much excuse for "not knowing", but there are a lot of reasons for not wanting to know. I think wine is defined as between 7 and 24 percent alc. and table wine is under 14. Dessert wine is over 14.

It used to be tax was 17 cents a gallon for table wine & 50 cents for dessert. I'm not aware that it has changed. ATF doesn't care if its 10% or 13.95%. But if it's 14% and above they want to know big time.

But a buck more a case to get a 95 in the WS is a small price to pay.

- Tastevin - 03-01-2004 02:56 PM

Hello Wineguruchgo, I started drinking wine on a regular basis back in the mid 50’s when I got my first job in the wine trade. Here, the countries of origin then were mainly France, Germany, Italy, Spain (a little table wine, but mainly Sherry), Portugal (a little table wine, but mainly Port), South Africa (a little table wine, but mainly imitation Sherry), My memory of the quality of those wines of the 40’s – 70’s is not good enough now for me to honestly compare like for like with more recent vintages. Even if I could compare I’m not sure it would prove anything. What I will say however, is that overall I have been fortunate enough to drink the wine of something like 60 vintages back to 1878, and have enjoyed them immensely. In my opinion, and hopefully not seeming patronizing, I believe the quality of New World wine, and France’s ‘lesser’ areas (the Midi for instance), is generally infinitely better than it was say 10 years ago, let alone way back. Wineglut, certainly reverse osmosis has a lot to do with consistency of type and flavour we are now experiencing, but I’m not convinced it necessarily improves quality. I don’t know how extensively the practice is used, it would be interesting to know. I do know it is used by many producers in California, and some in Australia and France (actually I’m not sure it’s even legal in France, bearing in mind their Appellation laws). Regarding the addition of sugar (chaptalisation) to the must, absolutely correct. In France in years where there is insufficient natural sugar in the grape ‘must’ the producer is allowed to add up to the maximum (forgotten what that is) amount per hectare of vines, during fermentation. However, they must not increase the eventual alcohol level by more than 2% (I think). I use the present tense because this is still allowed. Back to reverse osmosis and high alcohol levels if I may, I said the other day that it looks as though high levels are here to stay. Well, Foodie’s somewhat puzzling remark about measuring alcohol content, and Wineglut’s mention of reverse osmosis brought it to mind that R.O. can be used to reduce alcohol content, so maybe levels will be lowered eventually. Or will they? Perhaps the wines we are buying have been reduced already? Still on the subject of alcohol, the law relating to wine strength is different here. %ABV has to be shown on the label, even for Table Wine, and it may only differ by 0.5%, either way, to that shown on the label. I would guess that for identical EEC wines that are available in your country and here the % shown is as accurate. Next week I will be opening a bottle of Ch. Leoville-Las-Cases1994. Gosh, I do hope they haven’t used reverse osmosis on it. T

- wondersofwine - 03-01-2004 06:26 PM

I was asking questions of Alex Gambal (American negociant/eleveur in Burgundy) about making his wines. He says they are not allowed to add sugar whereas American producers can. I think I did read however that in less sunny (ripe) vintages, the French can add unfermented grape juice at some point in the production which does sweeten the final product. Is this correct?
Or am I mixing up German winemaking with French?

- wineguruchgo - 03-01-2004 06:54 PM

Thanks Tastevin!

I certainly appreciate your time and attention. It was a very interesting read and I would have loved to try a wine from the 1870's! Just for the sheer kick of it and to see how it was made and how it held up.

I don't think I will ever be able to afford such in wine in my lifetime.

Thanks again.

I'm going to research the addition of sugar/juice in France. Interesting subject.

- wineguruchgo - 03-01-2004 06:56 PM

I found this on line. Doesn't say anything except Southern France, which would make sense.

The addition of sugar or concentrated grape must to grape juice before fermentation is complete. The goal is to boost the meager sugar levels found under-ripe grapes and the alcohol levels in the subsequent wines. Chaptalization is not uncommon in northern European countries, where cold climates may keep grapes from ripening completely, but it is forbidden in southern Europe (including southern France and all of Italy) and California.

- winoweenie - 03-01-2004 07:49 PM

Yea, Verily WOW your French Feller din't know what him were talking about. Chaptilazarion has never been allowed in Calif since the ATBF took ahold in the 30s'. No big deal as with the weather in Calif we seem to hit max or above sugar levels every year.WW

- Thomas - 03-01-2004 09:41 PM

Re, accuracy in measuring alcohol: ebulliometers are the best in accuracy, but even then the US govt. considers the results imperfect, and so, they allow the wide berth up or down. And, according to Tastevin's post, even the French allow at least .5% leeway.

Many wineries in the US, other than in California, are tiny--their investment in ebbulliometers, and in laboratories, are often nil. Either their local agricultural station offers the service for a fee or they opt for Table Wine on the label or, heaven forbid, they just guess based on the sugar at harvest and the results after fermentation.

wineglut, I checked my notes from when I operated a winery: Table Wine was 7 to 15% alcohol, according to the US govt. (the operative word is Table). Beyond that, it is taxed as what? fortified wine, I suppose. Looked at that way, and considering the 1.5% leeway, a producer would be a fool to claim anything over 15%, unless it was so obvious it would be hard to get away with a lesser claim.

In any event, I stay away from still table wine that exceeds 13% alcohol. I find the heat intrusive, annoying and uncalled for, not to mention the bombastic nature of a product that should be elegant.

Tastevin, unlike in Europe, table wine in the US is not a classification for wine--it refers only to the wine's taxability. In fact, sadly, there are no wine classifications (or DOC regs) in the US.

[This message has been edited by foodie (edited 03-01-2004).]