Aussie Reds – so much alcohol, so little finesse


Is it global warming, tough Aussie men or smart marketing?

‘To force Syrah up to an alcoholic content of 14 per cent or more,’ Roger Scruton wrote in a New Statesman column headed Grapes of Wrath, ‘tricking it into early maturation, so as to put the result on the market with all its liquorice flavours unsubdued, puffing out its dragon breath like an old lecher leaning sideways to put a hairy hand on your knee, is to slander a grape that, properly treated, is the most slow and civilised of seducers.’

Once upon a time, Shiraz was indeed the most civilized of red wines. The most seductive were the reds from the upper Rhone – Hermitage, Cote Rotie etc. – fragrant, medium-bodied reds with peppery, spicy and earthy overtones. We made reds in a similar style: I remember Best’s Great Western Shiraz reds from the seventies that were delicate but long-lived because of their superb balance. And Hunter reds from Murray Tyrrell and Coonawarra reds from Owen Redman in that style.


Bigger is Better

This became the motto for Aussie winemakers in the 90s. In 2005, the Australian Wine Research Institute published a report by Peter Godden and Mark Gishen, which showed mean increases in alcohol across all grape varieties and wine regions. They found the biggest increases in red varieties: Between 1984 and 2004, average alcohol levels in red wines rose from approximately 12.3% by volume to 13.9%. This matches my own observations,  charting the rising alcohol levels of three well-known Aussie reds:

Penfolds Grange 1981 – 12.7%

Penfolds Grange 1996 – 14%

Penfolds Grange 2004 – 14.5%

Penfolds St Henri 1986 – 13.4%

Penfolds st Henri 1998 – 14%

Penfolds St Henri 2004 – 14.5%

Leconfield Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon 1996 – 13%

Leconfield Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 – 14%

Leconfield Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 – 14.5%

Bigger again still is better still

Today it’s hard to find Cabernets or Cabernet blends even from cool Coonawarra, even in a coolish year like 2010, that aren’t 14.5% alcohol. Bottles of Barossa and McLaren Vale Shiraz from the same year often notch up 15% or more. Overripe, jammy, extracted fruit bombs that assault your senses like bulldozers, wines so big that you’re tempted to reach for a spoon, wines that can hardly be called ‘fine’ wines.

Some blame Robert Parker for this trend. The American who makes and breaks reputations at will developed a great fondness for the big ripe reds made in South Australia and Victoria. In the late nineties, he gave a 1996 Chris Ringland Shiraz 100/100 points and called it ‘arguably the greatest Shiraz made in Australia … this viscous, black/purple-colored wine represents the essence of both wine and Shiraz … it is akin to a dry vintage port.’

It’s hard to see how a wine resembling vintage port – and Ringland’s wines frequently reach close to vintage port alcohol levels of 16-17% – can be the essence of wine. Duck Muck Shiraz 1997 from Wild Duck Creek at Heathcote was another Parker favourite rated at 99 points out of 100, which instantly made a 16% red no one had ever heard of unprocurable. Single bottles soon sold for $1,000 or more at auction.

2013-01-25_073332Other winemakers took their cue from this story and found that Parker was kind to all those who went right over the top on the octane scale. He found Sarah and Sparky Marquis, called their McLaren Vale reds ‘the greatest red wine values in existence’ and urged his followers to back up the ute. Sarah and Sparky launched a new brand in 2006, ‘Mollydooker’, for reds that packed a 16% punch.

Parker promptly declared The Boxer the Best Value Red Wine in the World, Two Left Feet the second best, and the Maitre D the fourth. Sparky proudly tells us that he leaves the grapes on the vines several weeks longer than anyone else in McLaren Vale. You didn’t think there was a market for Spaetlese Shiraz? The North Americans can’t get enough of it

Whaddayaknow: It’s not global warming

British wine authority Jancis Robinson cites a working paper published in May 2011 by the American Association of Wine Economists, which found that the increase in average alcohol levels in wines across the world was much greater than could be explained by global warming. The researchers concluded that ‘the rise in alcohol content of wine is primarily man-made’.

Yes, it’s simple: winemakers make these rich, ripe, forward reds because they’re easier to sell. They also win more medals since judges reliably fall for wines with obvious charms like voluptuous curves, succulent fruit and velvety tannins. Reds like these also have instant appeal to some consumers since riper fruit and more alcohol (glycerol) make for a richer, smoother wine with a velvety mouth feel.


Others are getting really tired of these big reds. Robinson says: ‘It seems as though producers are aware of a general wariness of high alcohol levels yet wish to deliver a velvety texture that they reckon can be achieved only by prolonged ‘hang time’ of grapes on the vine.’

Isn’t it curious how our white wines have gone the other way, in the same climate, in the same vineyards? The trend has been to make them fresher and crisper to go with our outdoorsy summer style of living, and picking the fruit earlier to retain higher acid levels is a simple way of doing that. White wines are drunk chilled, too cold in most cases which kills the flavour and hides a lot of sins.

Misleading labels

Robinson also points out that the guys who wrote that working paper found winemakers reluctant to admit quite how high alcohol levels have to be ‘to achieve the imagined goal of gustatory fullness and roundness.’ This leads us to the next issue: the latitude authorities allow winemakers when it comes to printing the alcohol level on wine labels. In Australia, a wine labeled 14.5% can quite legally be anything from 13 to 16%.

This explains why some wines show the same alcohol level, year in, year out, and some winemakers claim the same alcohol level across a range of different wines. I tend to check the alcohol level on labels of wines before buying them in order to avoid monster reds and the Twiggy whites that have become so fashionable in recent years. What do you do when you can’t even rely on a simple number on a product label?

Mechanisation – a drug of addiction

By the nineties, mechanical pruning and harvesting had became the norm in our bigger vineyards. The savings were irresistable, and the gains considerable. As James Halliday recalls: ‘… the major wineries were hellbent on producing the maximum yield per hectare at the lowest possible price. Pruning was mechanised and reduced to a minimum, and the grapes were mechanically harvested … low-cost viticulture had become a drug of addiction, facilitating discounting of already low-priced wines, yet providing a return on the annual running cost.’

Night-Harvest780XWhat’s this got to do with rising alcohol levels in our reds? Let’s step back for a moment: sugar level determines the alcohol and natural acidity of a wine. Phenolics determine a wine’s colour and flavour compounds, and its grape tannins. These compounds advance along different maturing curves – in hot climates like ours, phenolic ripeness tends to lag behind sugar ripeness. In cold climates like Germany’s, it’s the other way round. In perfect climates, the two curves intersect.

With mechanical pruning and harvesting, the abundant vine canopies tend to slow phenolic ripenening of grapes and that means later picking at higher sugar levels. Picking later also reduces the number of unripe berries that end up in the crusher, the ones that caused those strange green pea and capsicum flavours in the eighties in Coonawarra reds. Coonawarra’s vast expanse of dead-flat vineyards was the perfect place for mechanization.

Back to nature

Those who hold global warming responsible for the rise in alcohol levels say that drought-stressed vines need to reach higher sugar levels to produce fruit of physiological ripeness. If that were so, why did the alcohol levels not go down after the drought ended? And how come the alcohol levels of white wines have come down in response to preferences by wine judges for fresher, lighter whites?

It really comes back to the winemaker and the vineyard. Physiological maturity is more easily achieved at sensible sugar levels in vineyards that are optimised for row spacing, vine density, trellising, pruning, canopy height and density, fruit shading and water use. This can’t easily be done in vineyards set up for mechanical pruning and harvesting, since they impose their own rules on vineyard management.

One way to achieve phenolic ripeness at lower sugar levels is to use biodynamic or organic farming techniques. Early adopters include Henschke, Kalleske, Mitchell, Bass Philip, Bindi, Jasper Hill, Savaterre, Cullens and Howard Park. More wineries in the Margaret River region are adopting biodynamic practices, and it’s interesting to ponder how it’s forged ahead in the last decade while Coonawarra has underperformed.

Back to sanity

It’s great to have variety and choice, of course, and I have no issue with that. The problem with our reds is that the rise in alcohol has been pretty much across the board. The other problem is that high alcohol reds tend to lose their terroir and varietal characteristics – 15% reds taste pretty much the same, no matter where they come from.

A good example of this are reds from the Rhone from the warm years of 2007 and 2009. With alcohol levels of 14 – 14.5%, their fragrant, spicy, peppery, dusty characters were pushed aside by the sheer weight and ripe warmth of the wines. A Chateauneuf I had was no longer recognizable.

That’s not what fine wine is about, and that’s not where we ought to be heading. I will end with this plea to our wine judges who hand out the gongs at all those shows we run across the country: use the system to reward red wines of finesse, of elegance, of balance, wines that speak of their origins. Reward Shiraz wines of sweet breath and delicate touch instead of the puffed-up old lechers.


    • Peter Elsworthy

      Hi Kim,

      Your paragraphs discussing alcohol content on labels is a revelation to me. Likewise it’s been a habit for me to always check out ABV levels, now we find it’s only a guide! Surely this deceptive (& with drink driving laws), dangerous. Would love to hear you expand on your remarks. Keep up the great work. Cheers, Peter.