Mysteries of Alcohol and Virus in Wine

Not all questions have answers. Not in the wine industry, at least.

For the past 25 years, I have wandered the wine world, far and wide, seeking answers to two questions. Without being able to find one definitive answer to each.

First up is the matter of alcohol in wine. In modern red wines, alcohol content hovers between 14% and 14.5%, having settled down from 10 years ago when a hum-dinging 15% was quite common. Now when encountering a bottle of wine from the 1970s and 1980s, you’ll often find the same brand and cultivar that today shows 14.5% was in 1975 coming in at 12.5% or 13%.

Most people I ask are particular as to why this spike has occurred in wines over the past two to three decades. The problem is, they all seem to have different reasons for this occurrence.

A higher alcohol content alludes to riper grapes. So, one of the reasons given is that grapes are today harvested riper to appeal to the modern consumer’s thirst for powerful fruit-driven wines. Riper harvest, more sugar, higher alcohol, non?

Not quite. Some winemakers and fundis claim that climate change is the cause for these high alcohol levels as this diminishing ozone layer is intensifying the effect of the sun’s rays causing explosive ripening, sugar lifts and higher levels of ripeness than in the past. I am sure once Greta Thunberg reaches drinking age, this will be her reason of choice.

Perfect leaf-roll in a vineyard.

Another explanation comes from the old-timers who have been growing grapes and making wine for over four decades. The name Jan Boland Coetzee if Kanonkop and Vriesenhof fame come to mind. According to Oom Jan, the yeasts used to ferment wines 30 to 40 years ago caused the juice to convert to lower levels of alcohol. I listened attentively, but had not the guts to ask what about natural ferments? Wild ferments would make a 12.5% alcohol wine in 1974, but the same wine – still naturally fermented – today comes in at 14%?

The other question I ask tends to elicit more decisive answers. Namely, is leaf-roll virus detrimental to making good wine?

Some winemakers and viticulturists, such as the great André van Rensburg of Vergelegen and the Grande Dame of vineyards Rosa Kruger, are but two of the fervent opponents of any theory suggesting that leaf-roll vines add character and complexity to a wine. Anyone not supporting the obliterating of leaf-roll from the Cape vineyard deserves to be burnt at the stake. It damages vines, thins the ripening of the fruit and leads to insipid wine.

Yet, someone like Abrie Beeslaar from Kanonkop, arguably South Africa’s greatest red wine estate, easily makes his highly lauded Paul Sauer and Pinotage from vines that come early autumn are text-book examples of what leaf-roll virus looks like. A rusty-purple cloak covers the vineyard, and it ain’t autumn leaves that are brown.

The Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, two, makes jaw-dropping Pinot Noir from vines with healthy leaf-roll infections.

The door remains open for opinions. But I am not longer asking. These are but the two mysteries of wine that actually do not require answers, but add to the unfathomable magic of a world that continues to fascinate, never cease to intrigue.



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