Salad Niçoise is the perfect lunchtime meal as the thermometer goes past 30°C and heads for 40°C but what to drink with it? During the holidays, I unearthed a bottle of Graham Beck The Ridge Shiraz 1997 from the depths of my father-in-law’s Wellington cellar, and it proved an excellent companion to the food: elegant with red fruit, pepper and fresh acidity.
For one thing, it was served chilled. For another, it had an alcohol by volume of only 12.5%. The rise in abv of local red wines over the last ten to fifteen years has been thoroughly discussed in recent times but I believe it is a topic that we can’t let fall off the agenda. The 1997 was the maiden vintage of what is now The Ridge Syrah, Graham Beck’s ultra-premium offering in the Shiraz category, and if you want an illustration of how alcohols have climbed, then consider that the current-release 2006 is 14.33%.
I had occasion to drink a number of older wines over the holidays and what was striking was how they all had relatively low alcohols. Le Bonheur CWG Cabernet Sauvignon 1998 came in at 12.5%, Thelema Cabernet Sauvignon 1996 at 13% and Veenwouden Classic 1997 at 13% – compare current release versions of these wines and they are all around one percent higher in alcohol.
What was pleasing about these older wines is how well they had matured and I have a sense that by virtue of not being made from super-ripe fruit, they were more suited to the long haul in terms of their inherent composition. So many of the blockbusters that we saw during the 2000s impressed early on but fell over rather too quickly.
As for why alcohol levels have increased, a number of reasons have been put forward from the impact of climate change to commercial yeasts becoming ever more efficient when it comes to converting grape sugar into alcohol. Perhaps the most orthodox explanation is simply that there has been a stylistic shift towards wines with greater fruit expression and less astringent tannins, which necessarily requires grapes to be picked riper. If fashion is the dominant factor in why alcohols have gone up, then hopefully fashion will also cause a swing back to more medium-bodied, less spirituous wines in due course – just as hemlines in couture go up and down.