A new trend is taking the wine world by storm. Actually, it’s an old trend that just seems new. We’re talking about the ascendant consumer movement toward lower alcohol, food-friendly wines. The marketplace of savvy wine consumers is searching for elegance instead of power. Old school wines, if you will. Thankfully, we are beginning to move away from the days when many winemakers tried to achieve a “bigger is better” style that pleased certain critics: exceedingly extracted, high in alcohol, dark as ink, and viscous enough to hold up a straw. This natural shift in consumer preference, we believe, has grown out of the natural wine movement – an ideology of less is more, where wines authentically reflect their place of origin and are made with traditional techniques. In the last month, two of the world’s major wine publications have written about this very same topic. Matt Kramer of Wine Spectator asked “Are America’s Tastes Changing?” (http://www.winespectator.com/webfeature/show/id/46422) while Adam Lechmere at Britain’s famed Decanter Magazine posted a study showing that consumers across three continents prefer wines with lower alcohol levels (http://tinyurl.com/8ywuqje). At Bedell, we read these stories with great interest, and great satisfaction, because consumers are looking for something we have been producing on Long Island for many years.
The palate of the average wine drinker continually evolves over time. In the case of the Decanter article, research by analysts at Wine Intelligence (a global wine market research organization) canvassed 1,000 regular wine drinkers in the US, China, Germany and the UK, and found that, “Significant minorities in each country said their ideal wine would have less than 12% alcohol. The preference for lower alcohol is most marked in the younger generation Britain, 22% said their ideal wine was 10.5% or less, with similar numbers in Germany and the US saying the same.” This study is a snapshot of our current market adjusted proportionately for demographics, and shows a growing consumer preference, especially among younger drinkers, for lower alcohol wines.
In the case of the Matt Kramer piece in Wine Spectator, he not only explains the evolution of a more nuanced consumer in search of more elegant, lower alcohol wines, but he also makes some rather condemning statements about the California wine industry’s mass manipulation of wines to suit the American consumer palate. Not only do California wineries routinely “water back” unfermented juice to reduce alcohol levels, they also under-report the alcohol on their labels within a 1.5% compliance loophole. To quote Kramer, as he exposes the transparent cynicism of the California wine industry, “Two deceits are accomplished in one stroke.”
How did high alcohol wines come into favor in the first place? Well, alcohol used to be seen (erroneously) as an indication of careful vineyard management and attention to detail in the wine cellar. The common misconception was that higher alcohol resulted from grapes that had achieved optimal ripeness and quality – the ultimate expression of fruit making the best possible wine. This ideology arrived on our doorsteps as a result of Robert Parker’s dogmatic assertions associating alcohol with quality, which have been unsubstantiated by modern viticultural science. But it’s not just science that has de-bunked the high alcohol ideology; it is being eroded at the most common grassroots level of the consumer palate. What has probably gone unnoticed during this era is that winemakers have been producing elegant wines with moderate alcohol for most of human history.
The underlying dichotomy that Matt Kramer presents is a commonly used turn of phrase “Old World vs. New World” winemaking – as if there were no other choices for the consumer, and every wine on earth fit neatly into one of these two categories. Rather than discuss places where lower alcohol wines are made, such as Long Island, the Wine Spectator article alludes to California wineries further manipulating their wines to target a growing consumer niche. Of course, a philosophy based on using further manipulation in order to meet a trend that’s based on less manipulation, is certainly ironic. What’s missing in Kramer’s piece is a discussion of other regions in the New World – especially Long Island – which can produce wines in a restrained and low alcohol style quite naturally with their climate and terroir, and have been doing so for over 30 years. Long Island grows grapes in a maritime climate with lowers levels of sunshine and slower ripening conditions where sugar and acid can achieve a perfect balance without any manipulation from winemakers.
Maybe we are witnessing a monumental counter-balancing of the wine world, where a back-to-basics winemaking approach can once again thrive in an environment of consumer acceptance. Consumers are seeking out bottlings from smaller, hands-on artisanal wineries (who often eschew the word “boutique”), who may not embrace the manipulations and technology of globally-scaled mega wineries. Artisanal wineries, like us here at Bedell Cellars, know that chasing fads or consumer trends isn’t the best way to make wines that authentically represent their region of origin. We also know that by the time you’ve caught one fad, you’re already four years behind on the next.
We stand in a place today where we educate, appreciate, and embrace the newly evolved wine drinker – the curious and motivated and young – just as much as the experienced drinkers with a lifetime of knowledge who walk through our doors. No matter the demographic, we strive to show people an expanded sensory experience, with all the beauty of our naturally lower alcohol wines up for evaluation. And ultimately, what we hope consumers see, is that there’s more to the wine world than just “Old vs. New” – and actually there’s quite a lot of beauty in between.
Rich Olsen-Harbich Trent Preszler