Pursuing Balance through Dealcoholization
A wine’s complexity and ability to develop with age is directly related to the physiological ripeness of the grapes. This may seem counterintuitive because most New World wines are not generally known for aging, yet the grapes are harvested at much higher Brix levels than in the Old World.
Today, Wine Business ran a fascinating piece that illuminates key distinctions between ripeness and Brix levels. Originally written by Lance Cutler on October 15th, 2005, the article is a discussion with 3 experts (Charles Hendricks, Stefano Migotto, and Clark Smith), that addresses the controversial subject of dealcoholization. As the name implies, Dealcoholization is the process of removing alcohol, usually through cross-flow filtration or reverse osmosis.
Contrary to popular belief, Clark Smith asserts that California grapes do not have high Brix levels because the climate is warmer than Europe. The reasons, he argues, are more complex, and involve California’s higher diurnal fluctuation (day to night temperature swings), and low rainfall in the autumn months preceding harvest.
While the exact reasons for this phenomenon may be debatable, the fact is that grapes in California do not physiologically ripen until sugar levels are higher than they are in Europe. If California vintners harvested at the same Brix levels as Europe, the grapes would not have ripe tannins in the skins, seeds, and stems. Wines would lack complexity and taste “green.”
But Hendricks, Migotto, and Smith all argue that going by the numbers when deciding when to harvest is a mistake as well. Instead, they make the compelling point that there is no way around actually tasting the grapes to determine ripeness, regardless of the Brix measurement.
If the Brix is too high to produce a wine with balanced alcohol, tannins, and acidity, then dealcoholization can be carefully used lower the heat. However, as Charles Hendricks says, it can be difficult to find this “sweet spot.”
What particularly struck me about this article is that advanced technologies are being used in California to effectively produce a more traditional, Old World style of wine. California may have the capability to make the extracted, high-alcohol wines that have wowed many critics and consumers recently, but I am glad to see that some wineries are still pursuing balance; albeit through unconventional channels.