Chateauneuf-Du-Pape Alkohol

The Time is Ripe

AOPs should not make it even more difficult for winegrowers to adapt to climate change and should rethink alcohol content requirements.

I have to admit that Châteauneuf-Du-Pape is generally not one of my favorite appellations. The combination of high prices and high alcohol content is pretty much the opposite of what I consider desirable. 15 percent alcohol or more is currently the norm rather than the exception.

How much fun Châteauneuf-du-Pape can be with 13 percent was illustrated to me by a 1977 from the Domaine du Clos du Roi. I had bought this wine as a single bottle from a cellar clearance and opened it without any concrete expectations. Old wines are always a wager, especially if, you know neither the storage conditions nor the producer. In the glass, it is a wonderfully fresh wine that, fascinatingly, shows hardly any maturity. Anyone who guesses that this is a ten-year-old Grenache-Syrah-Mourvèdre-GMS blend in a blind tasting is definitely not embarrassing himself – I probably would have done so myself.

It is also fascinating how light and delicate the Châteauneuf-Du-Pape presents itself, with a Burgundian elegance that I have never experienced in recent vintages – and which probably cannot be achieved with 15.5 percent alcohol. The fact that red wines with 13 percent are almost extinct in the south of France is of course mainly caused by climate change. However, it is by no means the case that temperature is the sole factor influencing alcohol content. According to calculations by the Institute of Viticulture at Geisenheim University, natural factors determine 70 percent of the sugar content. 30 percent is in human hands. Fertilization management, planting, pruning, green harvesting and shading can all be used to counteract this. It seems bizarre that not all winegrowers are allowed to use these tools to reduce the alcohol content.

In Châteauneuf-du-Pape, similar to Bordeaux or Hermitage, a minimum canopy height is mandatory. Put simply, more leaves means more photosynthesis, more carbohydrate production and more sugar production in the berries, which results in a high sugar content and subsequently a high alcohol content. If winegrowers want to reduce photosynthesis by reducing the surface area of the leaves in order to slow down sugar ripening in the berries, wine controls will intervene at some point in many regions.

Mathieu Huguet from Bordeaux confirms to me that this scenario is also realistic in practice. As a viticultural consultant, he would like to recommend a lower canopy to his clients in some scenarios in the Right Bank on clay soils with heavy growth. For AOP wines, however, the limit is 1.50 meters. He himself produces Vin de Pays outside the AOPs and often uses the freedom of the lower canopy. I assume that this is no different in practice on the Rhône.

The P in AOP

Of course, alcohol content is not exclusively linked to the height of the canopy. But the rule illustrates the rigid logic of many AOPs. The wineries carry the greatest responsibility for coping with global warming in the vineyard. However, the AOPs must not leave them alone. Protecting their winegrowers has always been the core idea of the AOPs. If the consortia take the P in the Appellation Origine Protegée seriously, they should evaluate their guidelines to see whether they make coping easier or more difficult for winegrowers.

In 1935, Châteauneuf-Du-Pape was the first appellation to introduce a minimum alcohol content. The 12.5 percent set back then is no longer an obstacle today. 90 years later, Châteauneuf-Du-Pape could once again go ahead and introduce a maximum alcohol content. No doubt, this would cause difficulties for winegrowers and no doubt some wines would be kicked out of the AOP. But isn’t that the whole point of an AOP? And there is also no doubt that it would happen that winegrowers, overwhelmed by the weather of the vintage, might not be able to market their wine within the AOP without any blame on their part. But wasn’t this already the case in 1935 after particularly cool years?

I am by no means of the opinion that winegrowers should be protected from themselves. That would be presumptuous. Most winegrowers know their terroir very well and know exactly what they can and should do. But a maximum alcohol content would protect contemporary winegrowers, who are already making red wines with 14.5 percent today, from 16 percent wines ruining the reputation of the region.

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