While there is a groundswell for lower-alcohol wines, when it comes to the taste test, reds with alcohol levels above 13 percent win the day.
Consumers preferred Cabernet Sauvignon wines from grapes picked later rather than earlier, in a study published by journal Food Chemistry.
A series of five Cabernets from a South Australian vineyard harvested between one and four weeks apart with alcohols ranging from 11.8 to 15.5 percent were given to more than 100 consumers. It turns out that “optimal ripeness,” a phrase oft-used by winemakers to justify their picking decision should be reconsidered. We should be asking: what is the optimal ripeness for consumers?
The answer, according to the study, is 13.6 percent. The earliest-picked wines, coming in at 11.8 percent and 12.9 percent, were the least liked by consumers. Those with “intermediate alcohol levels” were the most liked.
The results showed that wines made from earlier-picked fruit displayed more red fruit and green flavors. The later-picked wines showed a deeper purple color and were rated more highly for dark fruit flavors and increased viscosity.
Dr. Keren Bindon, the lead author of the study and a senior scientist at the Australian Wine Research Institute, told Wine-Searcher that she had anticipated that the flavor and texture attributes of the two ripest wines, with alcohols of 14.2 and 15.5 percent would be viewed as better quality.
"But the consumers didn’t agree. This is what makes the findings so interesting – you can actually bring alcohol down naturally in the vineyard, as you’re not gaining anything from a consumer standpoint by waiting for flavor and texture to change as the grapes ripen further," she said.
When it comes to wines marketed as 'low alcohol', she explained that many are often produced from riper grapes with the alcohol subsequently removed, which means the riper flavors that consumers like could still be found.
"The consumers probably disliked other things in the 12 percent alcohol wines that were related to unripeness in the grapes e.g. acidity or green characters rather than the lack of alcohol itself. So, it is not to say if you had a wine at 12 percent alcohol with the flavor profile of the ‘riper’ 13.6 percent alcohol wine, that they would not like it," she said.
While there are no plans to extend this research further, it is likely that the optimal ripeness level for other varietals and wine regions would be different. Bindon responded: "The aim was never to give an absolute guide in terms of wine alcohol, but to get people thinking differently about grape ripening, and the minimum limit on harvestable baumé to achieve desirable wine flavor, texture and aroma. For Cabernet, the lower limit might be 13.5 percent from our study, but who knows? For Pinot, it might even be lower."
The study selected 108 consumers who drink wine at least once a week and rated the five wines from “dislike extremely” to “like extremely.”