Grape balls of fire

By Joelle Thomson

Global warming is contributing to the trend towards higher alcohol content wine, writes MiNDFOOD wine editor Joelle Thomson.

Despite your best efforts to drink less alcohol you are most likely drinking more.

Wine alcohol levels are creeping upwards in an insidious and dangerous trend, particularly in ‘new world’ wine regions like New Zealand, Australia, South America and North America.

Not one of the 20 Australian shiraz wines I tasted last week contained less than 14 per cent alcohol, some 15 per cent.

All provided a heady, hot, burning experience and while hot may be a flattering descriptive for many things in life, wine is definitely not one of them.

High alcohol levels flatten rather than flatter fruit flavours, making the wine taste disjointed.

Global warming is a major contributing factor in the trend towards higher alcohol content. Warmer temperatures cause grapes to ripen with higher sugar levels. These then ferment to high alcohol wines.

But the solution is not as simple as picking grapes earlier when the sugars are not so ripe.

As grape seeds often take longer to ripen than sugars, the result can be sweet-tasting grapes but under-ripe or only ‘just ripe’ seeds and pips.

Wines from California, Australia’s Barossa Valley, some parts of Spain and many parts of New Zealand are the biggest culprits.

It’s rare that a Kiwi chardonnay or pinot noir contains less than 14 per cent alcohol.

When Europe still ruled the global wine scene and Australian, New Zealand and Californian wines were little more than sweet, fortified lookalikes, the average alcohol content in most wines was about 12.5 per cent, which is far healthier both in taste and affect.

Little wonder then that riesling is slowly undergoing its long predicted renaissance. Some of the world’s best rieslings contain only 7.5 per cent alcohol.

Top of the list are German rieslings from Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, the Pfalz and the Rhine.


Experimental winemakers in New Zealand are following in the stylistic footsteps of Germany, particularly in central Otago and Waipara.

From Central Otago, look for rieslings like Felton Road Block 1, Amisfield Rocky Knoll and Carrick. From Waipara, look for rieslings like Pegasus Bay Aria, Muddy Water James Hardwick and Pyramid Valley’s Marlborough Riesling. All of these wines taste sensational and contain significantly less alcohol than most whites around these days.

If you don’t want to set foot inside a specialist wine store, try buying wine online.

As well as being able to browse undisturbed, you can also request advice and, best of all, it’s delivered direct to your doorstep.


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