I could swear that for the past six months lots of wine writers have been humming the “Blame it on the Alcohol” song – and writing about who’s to blame for the trend of increasing alcohol in wines. I’ve read at least a dozen articles and blog posts with observations of how alcohol content is going up compared to wines four or five years ago. And there’s also a fair amount complaining among the more Eurocentric of the Winerati that these higher-alcohol wines are less interesting and more one-dimensional than wines lower in alcohol.
Questions of individual taste aside, the higher alcohol content has now been confirmed. Last month the American Association of Wine Economists (AAWE) released an exhaustive study showing that the alcohol content of wine has definitely gone up in the past two decades. New world wines (U.S., South Africa, South America, and Australia) have seen a bigger increase than old world (European) wines, and reds more than whites.
What’s it all about? Ethanol, the alcohol in wine, is created during fermentation. Yeast eats the sugar in the grape juice for energy and produces ethanol and carbon dioxide. Beyond the buzz, alcohol does other things to make drinking wine a pleasure:
1) Wine wouldn’t taste like wine without it. Alcohol is a flavor carrier, like fat, and
many of the flavor components of wine dissolve better in alcohol than they do in water. This is why flavor extracts, like vanilla extract, contain alcohol too. So if you didn’t have alcohol in there, wine would have a lot less flavor. (Non-alcoholic wine doesn’t taste like very much, as any pregnant woman will tell you).
2) It wouldn’t feel the same in your mouth without alcohol, either. Alcohol changes the
texture of the wine from thin and watery to slightly thicker and a bit more velvety. It has to do with the interaction of alcohol with the water in wine and how it changes the water’s
ability to spread and coat the inside of your mouth. So even though wine is mostly water, it feels different drinking water vs. wine.
Does more alcohol make a “better” wine? As I said, it’s a matter of taste. Higher alcohol wines may have a more intense flavor, and usually ripe fruit flavor rather than spice or earthiness.
Why is it happening? Up until now the leading culprit was global warming. We all know that global warming is causing increasingly hot summers that can produce grapes with higher sugar content. When those grapes are made into wine, they’ll be higher in alcohol. And according to the AAWE study, the sugar level of wine grapes is definitely increasing.
Makes sense, except that the rise in alcohol content in wine is waaaay bigger than you’d expect from the change in temperature. According to AAWE it should take an increase
of 20 degrees F on average to increase the average alcohol content of wine by one percentage point (say going from 13% to 14%). No wine region has had that kind of temperature increase in the last two decades, and nothing like it is predicted in the decades to come.
So if not global warming, what? The authors contend that some winemakers are
adapting their techniques to produce higher alcohol wines. They can let the grapes hang on the vine longer, upping the sugar content. And temperature control, the size of fermentation tanks or barrels, mixing, and different strains of yeast can all affect alcohol levels. According to the study, this is in response to customers’ “evolving demand for wine having more intense, riper flavors.” These wines are generally more expensive, and
according to lots of wine writers and bloggers, more highly rated by influential critics than wines with less intense fruit flavor.
Here’s where it gets really interesting. The AAWE study also looked at the alcohol content listed on wine bottle labels vs. the actual content of the wine in the bottles. Based on data on nearly 100,000 different wines tested by the government of Ontario, the authors found that 57% of wine bottles list an alcohol content lower than what’s actually in the bottle. 32% of the bottles listed a higher alcohol content, while only 11% of labels accurately reflected the alcohol content of the wines (within a small margin of error.)
There’s nothing illegal about the numbers. U.S. labeling requirements have room for error. Wines under 14% alcohol have an allowable error of ±1.5 percentage points, and it’s ±1 percentage point for wines over 14% alcohol. That means that the reported alcohol level can be off by between six and 12 percent in actual terms, depending on the alcohol content. There’s also some mathematical rounding – you rarely see alcohol percentages on labels that aren’t either a whole number (like 14%) or end in 0.5 (like 13.5%).
[By the way, this sort of thing also happens in food nutrition labeling for calories per serving. Regulations allow for a 20% margin of error for calories. So the proposals being considered by the Treasury Department to require calorie labels for alcohol won’t necessarily make alcohol labeling more accurate.]
But the AAWE study shows systematic underreporting beyond a small margin of error. That means it’s not random. If it were just standard measurement error, you’d expect the numbers of overestimating and underestimating to be about the same.
So what’s happening is that on the one hand, winemakers are making wines with higher alcohol content, and then on the other hand underreporting the alcohol content on the label. Not only that, but since the higher alcohol wines are usually more expensive to produce (unless the winemakers are simply adding sugar to the grapes), the study points
out (with some bemusement from the authors) that customers are paying more to
be lied to when it comes to their wines.
It seems bizarre. But there’s definitely a stigma to higher alcohol wines. Part of it is because of the cheap fortified “wines” we all drank in college (or –ssshhh—high school). Sort of like drinking lighter fluid. A well-balanced 15% or 15.5% alcohol red wine
doesn’t have to be a fire-breather, but people may think it is and dismiss it out of hand.
I think some of the lowering on the label is aspirational. Look at the dream wines of critics over the past 50 years, the vintages discussed in hushed, reverent tones, the ones that get the most column inches of purple prose (once-in-a-lifetime, touch-the-face-of-the-deity memories), and you’ll find that these wines contain 14% alcohol or less. In the case of older wines, more like 13% or less. Many customers know this, and winemakers certainly do. Today’s new world Cab/Merlot blend can’t actually be the legendary Château Blah-de-Blah 19xx, but it can seem more like it from the label.
There are also tax implications based on alcohol content, and labels need to get new federal approval (from the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau of the Treasury Department) when the alcohol content crosses 14.1% (going either up or down). This
means time and money for new labels that might otherwise be avoided.
As I said, it’s probably not illegal, although U.S. law assumes that wines labels represent a good-faith effort to accurately reflect what’s in the bottle. And I think they should in practice, too. If we want wines with 13% alcohol we should be getting what we pay for. We might find that it’s not so clear-cut. After all, it’s not like you can start your charcoal with a good 15.5% alcohol Zinfandel, and most of us probably aren’t sensitive enough tasters to detect the additional alcohol. It’s time for us to stop the naïveté in expecting a really lush, ripe, fruity wine to be less than 14% alcohol. If that’s the style of wine you like, you ought to know what’s really in it.
There are some beautifully balanced wines with higher alcohol – I found that the 2009 Southern Rhône reds at 14.5% alcohol (and may actually be closer to 15%) are delicious even though they’re definitely higher in alcohol than they were five or so years ago.
(We’ll get them in later this year, so stay tuned). The winemakers have preserved the earthy characteristics of the wine along with the riper fruit flavors.
In fact, I’m going to recommend a 14.5 percent-er for this week’s selection: Cave la Vinsobraise Emeraude 2007 ($18). It’s 60% Grenache, 40% Syrah, aged in oak. As I’ve said before, the Emeraude is spectacular with lamb. And I’ve got a great recipe to go with it: Lamb “Cannelloni” with Caramelized Apples and Candied Lemon Peel.
Let me say before you read any further that this is the most complicated recipe I’ve ever put in this blog. You may have thought the Camembert Doughnuts were the ne plus ultra, but I can assure you they’re a lot less work than this recipe. So feel free to roll your eyes if you like.
Still, if you’re looking for something really special, you can’t do much better than this. Cy
and I visited a restaurant called Pera Batlla in northeastern Spain back in April, and had spectacular food. The owners, Antonia and Clara, have created a beautiful restaurant in a part of the world that is becoming renowned for great dining. Seriously, this was one of the best meals we’ve ever had. My entrée was the lamb cannelloni, and I set out to make it at home once we got back.
The dish is crepes filled with braised lamb shoulder that then get sautéed in a little bacon fat and olive oil to make them like meaty blintzes or really upscale chimichangas. When I first made them I didn’t sauté them enough to get really brown all over so now I know better. (It’s a little difficult to stand them on end to get all sides golden brown, but the more you have in the pan the easier it is to lean them against one another). The other important thing I happened on by accident – I made a sort of hash from the leftover lamb for breakfast and sautéed it with some of the braising liquid until it all got a little browned – and this was exactly the extra flavor that the dish had in the restaurant that mine didn’t at first. A lucky find! (And it makes perfect sense for a single serving in a restaurant, which isn’t the way I cook at home, so I wouldn’t have thought of it from the start).
The braised lamb, diced, sautéed apples, crepes, and candied lemon peel can all be made ahead. I used Golden Delicious apples because they keep their shape, but you can use Granny Smith if you’d like them a little more tart. If you can find good candied lemon peel
strips at a candy store, go ahead and buy them. Likewise with the savory crepes: you may be able to find frozen crepes (just don’t get the sweetened ones), or you could try using Thai eggroll wrappers, which are basically crepes anyway (don’t try the thin noodle-like ones you find for Chinese eggrolls – they won’t work here). But I’ve given you instructions for all the parts of the dish if you want to make them yourself.
As I said, you might not ever make this – but if you do, you won’t be sorry. And I did warn you, so if it’s too much, just blame it on the alcohol!
Inspired by a dish at Pera Batlla, Ventalló, Spain
3 pounds bone-in lamb shoulder, extra surface fat trimmed
1 750 ml bottle dry white wine
2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
2 large onions, cut in half , peeled, and sliced
1 branch fresh rosemary
1 cup all-purpose flour
Salt and freshly-ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 300 degrees F and place an oven rack in the lower third of the oven. Combine the wine and chicken stock in a large saucepan, bring to a boil, and simmer for
about 15 minutes to reduce the liquid a bit. In the meantime, heat 3 tablespoons of the olive oil in a Dutch oven that has a lid and is a little bigger than the lamb shoulder. Saute the onions with a little salt and pepper until lightly browned, then transfer the onions to the wine/stock mixture with a slotted spoon. Cover the saucepan and keep the liquid and onions warm.
Salt and pepper the lamb generously. Spread the flour on a dinner plate and then dredge the lamb shoulder all over in flour, shaking off the excess. Get the Dutch oven hot again, and add a little more oil if it looks dry. Brown the lamb on all sides until it’s just golden.
Remove the lamb and pour in about half the liquid and onions, stirring and scraping the bottom of the Dutch oven to release all the browned bits. Put in the lamb and the rosemary, then pour in the rest of the liquid. Bring it all to a boil on the stove, then cover it tightly and put it in the oven.
Braise the lamb for 3 hours, turning it over every hour. Let it cool in the liquid until
you can handle it. (If you like, you can refrigerate the whole thing after it cools.)
When you’re ready to go on, remove the lamb and cut it off the bones, then cut it into very small pieces, ¼-inch or so. You should have at least 4 cups of meat, which is what you’ll need for the recipe.
Strain the braising liquid, pressing on the vegetables in the strainer to extract as much liquid and flavor as you can, and add enough of the liquid to the lamb pieces to keep them moist. Taste the lamb for salt at this point and add some if you think it needs it. Refrigerate the lamb and the braising liquid separately.
4 Golden Delicious or Granny Smith apples
1 teaspoon lemon juice
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
A pinch of salt
Peel the apples and cut a slice off the top and bottom so that they’re both flat. Then make four cuts vertically around the core so that you end up with four pieces of apple. Slice each piece ¼-inch thick, then stack the slices and cut into ¼-inch julienne, then into ¼-inch
cubes. Toss the apple cubes with the lemon juice and a pinch of salt in a small bowl.
Heat the butter in a large nonstick skillet. When the foaming subsides, add the apple
cubes to the pan and spread them out as much as possible. Saute them over medium heat for about 5 minutes without touching them. Then gently turn them over with a plastic or wooden spatula and cook them on all sides until they’re lightly browned all over and just tender but not mushy. Taste a couple and see if you’d like them to be a bit sweeter – if so, add about a teaspoon of sugar to the pan and gently mix it with the apples.
Spread the apples on a microwave-safe dinner plate and let them cool. You can cover the plate with plastic wrap and refrigerate them for a day or two if you’d like.
Candied Lemon Peel
1 large lemon, or 2 small ones, rinsed and dried
Sparkle sugar (optional, but it looks pretty)
Using a good vegetable peeler, cut 9 strips of peel from the lemon, making them as long as possible. You’ll need only 8 for the recipe, but you’ll want one to test for doneness. (You can also make more and freeze them, they’re delicious and make a great garnish for other dishes too.) Be careful to include just the yellow part and not the white part, which can be bitter (a little is OK, but if there’s more, put the strips yellow-side-down on a cutting board and scrape the white part away with a small sharp knife).
Bring 2 cups of water to a boil, add the peel slices, and simmer for 3 minutes. While they’re simmering, heat ¾ cup each of water and granulated sugar together in a small
saucepan, stirring gently to dissolve the sugar. Bring it to a boil and then reduce it to just
simmering. Drain the peel and add it to the simmering sugar mixture. Cook it for 15 minutes and then fish one out with a fork and taste it. It should be completely soft. If not, cook for a few minutes until done. Turn off the heat.
Place a cooling rack with small holes over a baking sheet to catch drips. Put at least a cup of granulated sugar on a plate. Fish the peel slices out of the sugar syrup one at a time and let the excess syrup drip back into the pot. Drop the slice on the sugar on the plate, then push some sugar onto the top of the slice and press it down gently. If you like, sprinkle a
small amount of sparkle sugar (it’s clear and has nice big crystals) onto the convex surface (the peel will curl a little). Place the slice on the rack and let it dry for a couple of hours. Repeat with the remaining lemon peel slices. They’ll firm up as they dry. Then you can store them airtight at room temperature for a few days, or freeze them.
This recipe makes more crepes than you’ll need, but if you’re new to crepe making you may have a few less than perfect specimens. And you can freeze the leftover crepes for
1 cup flour, measured by the dip-and-sweep method, or 5 ounces.
2/3 cup milk
2/3 cup water
3 large eggs
¼ teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons melted unsalted butter, cooled slightly, plus additional butter to cook the crepes
You can mix all the ingredients (including the 3 tb of melted butter) in a blender until smooth, or in a bowl (beat the water, milk and eggs together, and add them to the flour with the salt and butter and whisk until completely blended). Let the mixture sit at room temperature for at least an hour, so the flour can absorb the liquid.
Heat a little butter in a nonstick sauté pan that’s about 10 inches in diameter across the top (you’ll want to make crepes that are 7 inches or so in diameter). When the foaming stops, add about 3 tablespoons of batter to the pan all at once and swirl the pan so the batter just covers the bottom of the pan. Cook over medium-low heat for a minute, then
gently lift an edge of the crepe to check the underside – it should just be starting to get golden (if not, cook it for another 30 seconds and check again). Using your fingers or a spatula, turn the crepe over and cook it for about 30 seconds. Transfer the crepe to a dinner plate and proceed with the next one. You can stack them up as you make them.
Let the stack cool for a couple of minutes, then cover the whole stack and the plate with plastic wrap. You can keep them in the refrigerator for a couple of days, or freeze
them once they’re cool. If you freeze them, let them defrost overnight in the fridge.
4 cups finely diced braised lamb
The lamb braising liquid
1 large onion, finely diced
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
½ to 1 teaspoon smoked sweet Spanish paprika
4 ounces good smoked bacon, cut into small pieces
1 egg, lightly beaten
The caramelized apples
8 strips of candied lemon peel
4 small sprigs of rosemary
Bring the braising liquid to a boil in a small saucepan and simmer it for about 10 minutes to reduce it a bit. Heat a little oil in a large skillet and add the onion, plus a little salt and some pepper. Cook the onion until it’s lightly browned. Then add the lamb pieces and ½ teaspoon of the paprika and continue to cook until the pan looks a little dry. Add about a cup of the hot braising liquid, raise the heat, and cook, stirring, until the liquid is almost gone and you start to get a little browning of the liquid in the pan. Taste it for salt, pepper, and paprika, and add more if you’d like. Turn off the heat, cover the pan, and set the lamb aside.
Set a crepe ugly side up on your work surface. Put about 1/3 cup of the lamb mixture just
below the center of the crepe and spread it into a small rectangle. Fold the bottom of the crepe up over the filling, then fold in the sides. Using a pastry brush, brush a little beaten egg on the top edge of the crepe, then fold the top down and press lightly to seal. Set the filled cannellone aside, seam side down, and continue with the rest.
Cook the bacon pieces in a large nonstick pan until just crisp. Remove them with a slotted spoon and drain the pieces on paper towels. Add a little olive oil to the bacon fat in the pan – you’ll want to have the entire pan covered with fat and oil. When everything’s hot, put the cannelloni in the pan seam side down and cook over medium-high heat until the bottom is browned. Turn the packets over and brown the other side. Then stand the crepes on their unbrowned sides right up against one another to brown them, and repeat on the other side. Pick up two cannelloni at a time gently with tongs and brown the ends.
You want everything really good and browned (although this is tougher with the ends, so do the best you can).
While the cannelloni are browning, heat the caramelized apples in the microwave – you can do this right on the plate you had them cooling on. When everything’s ready, put
¼ of the apples in a small pile on each of four dinner plates. Arrange 3 cannelloni around and on the apples, and sprinkle ¼ of the cooked bacon over. Drizzle some of the reduced braising juices around, the place 2 slices of candied lemon peel standing up artfully among the cannelloni and apples. Garnish with a sprig of rosemary. Serve immediately.