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Cabernet Taste Test Identifies Ideal Alcohol Level

The most-liked wine in the study had an alcohol of 13.6%. The least-liked wines were under 13% alcohol
© Fotolia/Wine-Searcher | The most-liked wine in the study had an alcohol of 13.6%. The least-liked wines were under 13% alcohol
Cabernet Sauvignon study finds consumers prefer intermediate- to later-picked fruit.

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.”

Related stories:

Is Yeast the Answer to Lower-Alcohol Wines?

Taste Key Factor in Low-Alcohol Wines

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  • Comments

    Lawrence Burr wrote:
    23-Feb-2014 at 21:50:26 (GMT)

    This study is flawed. The entire organoleptic profile changes during the last 4 weeks of ripening, not just the alcohol. Options are open to improve the concept, which has merit: 1. Pick the grapes at an early stage, say 11% abv, make the wine, then adjust the abv levels upwards with ethyl alcohol; 2. Allow organoleptic maturity, make the wine, then de-alcoholise the wines to various abv levels as desired for the study. This way, the acid, tannin etc will be the same in each sample.

  • Drew Streitberg wrote:
    18-Feb-2014 at 04:13:28 (GMT)

    To me this highlights the problem with ever-shifting to a volumetric alcohol tax. Consumers indicate a preference for a wine of a certain alcohol content and the drive will be t0 shift this lower due to tax implications ultimately impacting the quality of the wine produced in terms of flavour (as current lower-alcohol wines are not quite there yet in my opinion (save some very limited exceptions)). This will negatively impact sales either way through the consumer abandoning the product due to inferior taste at the lower-end or abandoning it due to price at the higher end due to an increased tax.

  • Burke Reschke wrote:
    18-Feb-2014 at 02:46:20 (GMT)

    It would be interesting to know the age of the wines tested and if the results changed as the wines got older...?

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