The Mountain Times

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What makes a great wine?

When did high alcohol content and dense color become the hallmarks of great wine? When did a sappy jammy texture of wine become the hallmark of great mouth feel? Today's wine world dominated by a few high profile critics seems homogeneously following a particular taste profile in order to get high ratings.

Today's high alcohol wines have been brought about with the winemaker's focus on phenolic ripeness. Phenolics are a group of compounds that contribute color pigmentation, flavor/aroma compounds and tannin. They develop in the skin, seeds, stems and pulp of the grape, but it is within the skin and seeds where phenolic ripeness is most important.

During what is called 'maceration', which is the contact of grape skins with the 'must' during fermentation, phenolic compounds are extracted including tannins, anthocyanins, and aroma. 'Must' is the unfermented grape juice, including pips, skins and stalks. 'Lees' are the wine sediments that occur during and after fermentation, and consists of dead yeast, grape seeds, and other solids. Wine is separated from the lees by racking after fermentation and moving it into another vessel. Fermentation is the conversion of grape sugars to alcohol by yeast.

In the 90s, researchers discovered that phenolic ripeness and sugar ripeness don't happen simultaneously. A winemaker could harvest grapes that showed sugar maturity but still had green unripe flavors, which is a phenomenon more likely to happen in warmer growing regions rather than cooler ones.

Winemakers like to say they grow the wine in the vineyard. Growing balanced grapes where phenolics and grape sugars mature in chorus with the proper proportion of natural acidity is a very difficult and detailed process. It is far easier to target a phenolic number and then mold the juice in the winery than to address Mother Nature's variables every year. It's the grape grower who harvests balanced grapes that should be the celebrity, not the winemaker who uses technology to manipulate and sculpt a wine.

Unlike wine critics, wine drinkers don't have the luxury of a few minutes with each wine before moving to the next. They must interact with the entire bottle of wine, which usually includes food. Yet for every degree of alcohol over 14%, there is an exponential drop in the wine's ability to work with food as it becomes heavy and dominating. But they stand out in a blind tasting, they quickly seduce the critic into giving it a high score.

Retailers and restaurateurs can build credibility by protecting customers from these unnatural and overly alcoholic wines. Wine drinkers should know that excessive alcohol in a wine is a mistake that is not recognized by most. The wine world should reject the scores and return to appreciating the multitude of wines, light or heavy, flavors that represent every little corner of the world, not just made to please certain omnipotent wine critics whose score can make or break a winery. Trust your own palate and taste as many different wines as you can!

Tagged: Wine Experiments