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Why are California wines getting more alcoholic?

Flickr photo by Paul AloeWine reviewers prefer riper flavors brought by high-sugar (and high-alcohol) content.

If it’s the bang in your wine you’re after, you’re in luck.

That’s because the sugar content – and therefore the alcohol content – in California wine grapes has increased nearly 10 percent since the late-1980s.

Exactly why this is the case has led to a lot of speculation.

Researchers have wondered if climate change is affecting the sugar content of grapes, or whether some other culprit is to blame.

Now scientists at UC Davis think they have the answer: lushy wine critics.

They think wine growers have responded to market demands fueled by wine critics – a phenomenon known in viticulture circles as the “Parker Effect,” named for influential American wine critic Robert Parker.

In the late-1980s, Parker created a created a 100-point system to rate wines. Consumers responded by using the system as a guide to help them decide what wines to purchase.

Wines that met Parker’s liking were given high ratings and purchased by consumers, while those that rated low on his system were not.

According to the UC Davis researchers, wine reviewers often give higher marks to wines with riper flavors and lower tannin levels. To create these flavors, the grapes must ripen longer, which leads to higher sugar content.

“This feature and the patterns of the level of sugar content among regions and varieties could be consistent with a Parker Effect where higher-sugar content is an unintended consequence of wineries responding to market demand and seeking riper-flavored, more intense wines through longer hang times,” wrote Julian Alston, director of UC Davis' Robert Mondavi Institute Center for Wine Economics, and the other study authors in their article.

Alston said while his work didn’t show a climate effect on California grapes, he did say other regions may be affected.

"I have friends who are working on Australian wine, and they say it's definitely gotten hotter in the Barossa Valley and changed their harvest dates,” Alston told Climatewire.

Filed under: Environment, Daily Report
Tags: alcohol

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