Where are alcohol levels headed?

By , 8 November 2022

To mark the launch of the 2018 vintage of Private Bin R163 Cabernet Sauvignon from Nederburg, the label’s current red winemaker Zinaschke Steyn presented a tasting of six wines spanning four decades, the vintages to feature being 1985, 1997, 2009, 2015 and both the Private Bin R163 2018 and the Private Bin Two Centuries 2018.

Alcohols were as follows:

Private Bin Two Centuries 201814.67%
Private Bin R163 201814.66%

How to explain the rise in alcohol over time? Changes in viticultural technique (especially with regards to canopy management), more efficient yeasts leading to higher sugar-alcohol conversion rates and climate change have probably all played a role in driving alcohols up but consumer taste has also shifted in the last four decades – a fruitier style of wine with less aggressive tannins is what tends to find commercial favour.

Steyn, who hadn’t been born yet in the case of the 1985, says that according to records a cool summer with unseasonal rain meant reds were generally thinner. The wine we tasted was indeed light-bodied but just about hanging on, its 18 months in all-new 300-litre barrels seemingly not an issue.

The 1997 was sound enough but pretty much resolved; the 2009 (which won double gold at Veritas in both 2013 and 2014) appeared over-done to me, brazen in how heavily extracted it was. The 2015, meanwhile, was big but not without balance and felt better handled in comparison to 2009. As for the 2018s, it should be remembered that the notorious drought of that decade had yet to break and the two wines from Nederburg are nothing it not powerful.

Grapes for the Private Bin R163 2018 (R495 a bottle) are from Simondium property Klein Simonsvlei, from two unirrigated vineyards on granitic soils, the one planted in 2000 and the other in 2008 – the resulting wine particularly dense. The Private Bin Two Centuries 2018 (R395 a bottle) sees grapes from Philadelphia combined with those from Simondium and probably has that little bit more energy about it (for ratings, see this Prescient Cabernet Sauvignon Report due out on 11 November).

If it seems that alcohols are only going up and wine styles are only getting bigger and bolder, then the 2019 vintage provides welcome relief. It was by no means an easy vintage, Autumn rains bringing the challenges of rot and uneven ripening – Mzo Mvemve and Bruwer Raats chose not to release the acclaimed red blend that is MR de Compostella from this year while Meerlust chose to declassify Rubicon, for instance.

In some ways, 2019 must have been like 1985 because those producers who were able to negotiate the tricky weather conditions have turned out elegant wines often with notably lower alcohols. There’s no better example than the 2019 vintage of Paul Sauer from Kanonkop in Stellenbosch, which has an alcohol of just 13.02%, the lowest since 1993 and significantly down on the acclaimed 2015, which came in at 14.47%.

When it comes to Paul Sauer, my feeling is that the 2019 surpasses both the 2015 and 2017, both much celebrated vintages of this wine. Does it all come down to alcohol strength? Emphatically, no. Alcohol is merely a guide to what you might find in the bottle. Will the wines of 2019 have the inherent structure to match the power of 2015 or the poise of 2017 in 40 years’ time or will they end up looking a bit attenuated? It’s unlikely I’ll be around to find out, but it will be fascinating to track the respective development of these three vintages over the next decade or two!


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