Is there anyone out there still making wines for drinking? And I do mean drinking, as in taking a good old mouthful and swallowing it - not sipping, nor tasting which is a different thing altogether.
Let me tell you what I enjoy most about wine. I like washing down a meal with mouthfuls of the delicious and stimulating liquid that is the fermented juice of the grape. I love the miraculously varied taste of different wines, and the way they go so well with so many foods, partly because, unlike so many other drinks, they are not sweet.
But wine is changing and, to my mind and palate, becoming very
much more difficult to drink - especially with food.
Since an increasing proportion of wine is now drunk without food, especially in anglo-saxon countries, it has become sweeter-tasting, even if this is unrecognised by most consumers. But the chief problem is that over the last five years or so it has also become so much stronger. When I started writing about wine in the mid 1970s many a red bordeaux contained only about 10.5 per cent alcohol - and anything over 12.5 per cent was exceptional. Today wines less than 13 per cent alcohol are rarer and rarer, while an increasing proportion of labels confess to alcoholic strengths of 14 or 15 per cent - about the same as sherry.
Time after time I open a bottle of wine, especially but by no means exclusively from the New World, and marvel at the intensity of the colour and flavour - only to find that I really do not relish a third mouthful. The wine is simply not appetising and refreshing enough. It leaves a hot, porty taste in the mouth. And then I spy the explanation, the tell-tale mid-teenage alcoholic percentage on the label. (Alcoholic strengths are mandatory on wine labels within Europe and I am eternally grateful for them, even if sometimes slightly sceptical about their accuracy.)
One British importer has just had a consignment of Pahlmeyer
Chardonnay, one of California's most admired, seized by the authorities because, while the label says 15 per cent, the accompanying documentation confesses to its 16 per cent, thereby pushing into the next band of excise duty.
The brewing lobby in Britain has even been arguing to the Exchequer that wine consumers should be penalised in the next budget expressly because wine has been getting stronger while, thanks to lager's increasing dominance, the average strength of a pint is weaker than it once was.
All of this means that, unless we wine drinkers want to risk head-spinning and a hangover, we are having to cut down our consumption - which means markedly fewer of those delicious mouthfuls. This seems to me a sorry state of affairs. I already drink quite enough water as it is and, while there is nothing to object to in water, it simply lacks what wine can deliver - not just sensual pleasure but a sense of history, geography and human achievement.
So why has wine become markedly stronger over the last 20 years? Some of the reasons are outside the control of the wine producer. Global warming provides one obvious explanation. Hotter summers mean riper grapes mean more sugar to ferment into alcohol. The advent of effective refrigeration and irrigation has converted many parts of the world once too hot for wine production to vineyard. In the mid 20th century most wine available in export markets came from the temperate climes of Europe. Today we import wine from much hotter parts of Australia, South Africa and the Americas.
Then there is the fact that yeasts are becoming more effective, likely to convert, say, a gram of sugar into more alcohol than they would have done 20 years ago. And the increasing and increasingly precise use of sprays against rot and fungal diseases means that growers can afford to keep grapes on the vine longer, being under much less pressure to pick before mildews and rots ravage the crop.
But this is not the whole story. Over the last 20 years, and particularly over the last 10, wine producers have deliberately left grapes on the vine longer and longer. This phenomenon started in California where there has been a quasi- religious worship of 'hang time', grapes left in the sun until they start to shrivel to an almost raisin-like state. The sugars in the grapes are certainly concentrated, resulting in much more alcoholic wines than would have been the case if the grapes had been picked sooner. The resulting wines, regarded as the height of fashion by many, are sometimes so strong - 16 or even 17 per cent - that they may discreetly have water added to them to 'bring them back' or 'humidify' them to a more acceptable alcoholic strength. Other producers even go to the trouble of having the alcohol removed by expensive physical techniques such as the spinning cone.
When an article I wrote about this phenomenon was published in
California recently I was amazed by the quantity and quality of feedback. Growers, almost all asking not to be quoted, were incensed that by being pressurised to leave grapes on the vine
longer while being paid on weight, they were effectively
sacrificing income. "Wineries are simply waiting as long as possible to pick fruit so they can add water at the winery and extend their gallons," claimed one.
Even more interesting perhaps was the reaction of several
winemakers of which this reference to the importance of earning high scores from the two most influential wine publications in the US, Robert Parker's Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator was typical: "Most modern winemakers are striving for balanced vines in their vineyards, and they love wines with fruit, acidity and balance. But like chefs who love to serve dishes with pig's feet or tripe, there are only so many times you can watch them not sell before you get the point. For better or worse, marketing departments and owners require good ratings from their winemakers, even if those ratings come at the expense of dead fruit, low acid and excessive alcohol."
There is even a company, Enologix based in northern California, which claims to have a virtual formula of wine constituents which is guaranteed to result in a rating in the all-important 90s (out of 100) from these arbiters of American taste in wine.
And here we get to the nub of the problem: the difference between tasting and drinking. Big, alcoholic, concentrated wines do indeed stand out from the crowd in a tasting of scores, perhaps hundreds, of samples - and such wines are therefore the most likely to attract the highest ratings. But this is absolutely no guarantee that these are the wines any of us will actually want to drink. Many of the professionals who wrote to me after the California article reported
instances of disparity between the results of even their own
tastings and those bottles that were drained most rapidly at the table afterwards.
The way the wine world is going may be fine if we are to turn into a planet of wine tasters, but please, do not drive us wine drinkers to extinction.