Thursday, December 29, 2011

Global Warming: By the Glass

By Stelio Kalkounos – Knowledgeable food & wine expert and restaurant management consultant.

Many wine enthusiasts in recent years have been complaining that wines are being released that are too “hot”. The term “hot” refers to a wine that is perceived to be high in alcohol content.  This has been a trendy topic amongst wine writers lately.  It seems although many popular wine magazines that make negative comments about wines being too high in alcohol, are also declaring some of the same wines as this years “top 50” or “top 100 hottest wines” (pun intended).

What many writers have neglected to do is explain the various reasons and the decisions that are made by wine makers and growers that may lead to high alcohol wines.  So one may ask, “What’s wrong with a wine that has relatively high alcohol content?”  The biggest concerns with these wines are they may not age well, are perceived as not balanced and are not food friendly.  Additionally, a consumer may begin to feel the affects of the alcohol too quickly, cutting short the opportunity to truly enjoy the experience.  Now, granted, these are real issues for wine collectors, sommeliers and restaurateurs to be aware of.  Where perhaps preparation of complex, ingredient intensive cuisine is concerned, guests might loose ability to notice the unique nuances in food when drinking highly-alcoholic wines.  High alcohol can cause palate fatigue; this is certain.

High alcohol in wines is a result of increased sugar content in grapes when they’re picked.  What causes elevated sugar levels in grapes? Can it merely be attributed to “Global Warming”?  The answer is certainly, no.  Weather has had a major impact on wine regions around the world.  A recent article in National Geographic states that due to elevated temperatures in traditional wine growing regions, there will be dramatic shifts in areas where wine grapes will thrive.  Each grape varietal flourishes in a narrow climatic niche.  An area such as Germany, which is known for being a cooler climate, white grape varietal, producing region, is now finding success with warmer climate grapes.  Pinot Noirs and Merlots in some areas are replacing Rieslings and Gewürztraminers. Germany isn’t the only area experiencing this trend.  In coming years, France’s Champagne region is predicted to become more of a red grape area.  Can you imagine Merlot from Champagne?  Southern Great Britain is now producing Pinot Noirs and making some sparkling wine.  This was unheard of before the last decade.

Wine makers use brix, a measurement of dissolved sucrose into water, to gauge sweetness in their grapes. In the early 90’s a brix of 23-24 was common.  Now 26 is a common number.  In the 60’s, winemakers made wines in the 13.5% alcohol range, now; 15.5 – 16.5% is average.  In recent years many wine growing regions in the world have experienced heat spikes and heat waves before and during harvest time. Wine makers can do a few things such as irrigate, pick grapes at night, dilute with water and “fine” to remove sugar, but ultimately warmer weather will shoot up sugar levels in grapes causing higher alcohol.  Low humidity removes the water from grapes and elevates sugar content per cluster or per pound.  Also, with many wineries over production is to blame.  Too many grapes and not enough time to pick them all before they become too ripe.

Are there other factors at play?  Yes, several major developments in Oenology since the 90’s have added to this dilemma such as the widespread use of new engineered phyloxera-resistant clones of grapes.  These “newer” clones may be a good short-term evolution, yet the older the vines are more likely to produce higher acidity and balance to the sugars.  Also, the new clones don’t allow for riper tannins at the right time.  Newer clones and rootstocks produce aggressive tannins.  Higher alcohol offsets this perceived aggressiveness or “green” tannin.  As these vines mature, the wines will develop fuller flavor, ripe tannins and a lower brix. 

The other major Oenological advancement in recent years has been the development of commercial, sometimes overly efficient yeast.  These yeasts seem to be stronger and tend to speed up fermentation causing higher sugar levels at sooner than expected times.  A great winemaker once told me that tannin is the architecture of a wine, yet it should be subservient to the fruit.  Fruit and sugar need to be balanced by the tannin.

Another major issue is the American palate.  Americans tend to prefer wines that present sweeter and show more overall bigness.  To understand the difference, consider the difference between Bordeaux and a typical Cabernet blend from Napa. French and European wines often show higher acidity, lower PH and lower alcohols. It’s also true that Europeans tend to drink more wine with food and thus wines have been designed to complement cuisine.  In America, a vast majority of society in the last 30 years is used to consuming sweet beverages with food.  This certainly would effect wine makers’ decisions about their products, if they hope to sell to an American consumer. I also believe that the American wine consumer is looking for instant gratification.  Very few would be happy to wait an hour for a wine to aerate and then find that the wine is subdued, has style, finesse and elegance.  Where’s the body and bigness, they may ask?  Many believe that if there is not a lot going on up front, they are not getting their money’s worth.  Consumers are looking for riper fruit characteristics and mature tannins, and ideally this means a balanced wine.

In the meantime, wine growers and consumers also may find some opportunities during this period of warmer climates.  Wine makers are switching grape types, modifying these techniques and experimenting in new growing areas.  Germany’s current success with red grapes is a prime example.  These traditionally cooler regions, which are warming up, may offer some excellent quality and value for the smart wine buyer.
Ultimately, does the wine smell and taste good?  Not all wines need to be complex or fancy, and not all wines need to age.  Even high-alcohol wines can be wonderful social beverages.  Many restaurants and fine dining establishments will showcase wines by the glass that don’t need to be consumed with food to be enjoyed. A great restaurant will feature a diverse selection of styles and alcohol levels. Milwaukee’s highly rated Five O’Clock Steakhouse, maintains a prime example of such selections. With over 30 wines by the glass and over 20 world wine regions represented at different price points, Five O’Clock Steakhouse surely has something to complement any meal and appeal to any pallet.  There’s never a bad time for good wine.

Stelio Kalkounos, knowledgable food and wine expert and restaurant management consultant, has operated some of the Midwest’s most successful establishments including Five O’Clock Steakhouse, Gibson’s Steakhouse, Hugo’s Frog Bar and Gino’s East Pizza.  His expertise on all areas of operations, from menu and wine list development to cost controls and vendor relations and have been effectively implemented in some of the world’s finest establishments from Athens to California.   More than two decades in the industry has taught Kalkounos that a restaurant should not just be a place to eat, it should feel like home and serve a space to savor life’s finer moments with family and friends.

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