Why Technical Data Leads Us Down The Wrong Street

By Charles Olken

I have a friend in the winewriting business who is known, behind his back, as Dr. pH because he has concluded that only wines of a certain pH (defined as the decimal logarithm of the reciprocal of the hydrogen ion activity in an acqueous solution) are worthy of his intentions. Okay, now repeat after me. I don’t care.

Now that I have that out of my system, I can tell you with a straight face that the pH measurement in wine is related to the overall acidity of that wine. Typically, wines with very high overall acidity measure near to 3.0 pH and wines with what tasters might think of as lower acidity measure close to and occasionally surpass 4.0 pH. Since very few bottles of wine ever tell you what the pH of the wine happens to be, this information seems only to be important before the fact to my friend.

He has relatives, of a sort, in the folks who will tell you that they never drink a wine whose alcohol is over 14.0% by volume (sometimes referred to as 14.% ABV). It is true that the higher the alcohol, the less of it you can drink before feeling the effects. And it is also true that wines with higher alcohols can also have a hot finish. We could spend a couple of days discussing how correct or not wine labels and their statements of alcohol content happen to be, but the real question is why.

And the real answer to those who would judge wine by tech sheet content rather than by taste is “do you like wine or are you a statistician”?

It is at this point that I will confess that I read the tech sheets that sometimes accompany wines arriving at my door and are also sometimes posted on winery web sites. But, I read them after tasting the wine. There are times when the numbers explain why a wine tastes the way it does. There are also times when the numbers are less than helpful, and my experience is that the better the wine, the less important the numbers are.

Numbers lead us down the wrong street if we rely on them instead of relying on analysis by mouth, i. e., tasting the wine. A winemaker friend was involved in the study of technical data for Chateau Petrus, one of the most expensive Bordeaux wines in the world at upwards of $ 2,000 per bottle for newly released vintages. The findings, done at the University of California, Davis, the foremost university for winemaker training in the country and one of the most respected worldwide, was that Petrus typical had a pH near to 4.0. Anyone who refused to even taste wines with pHs above 3.6 would simply dismiss Petrus out of hand.

The same is true for alcohol level. While it is true that a 16% alcohol wine will knock you on your backside about one-third faster than a 12% wine, those comparisons are not really about apples and apples. More likely, those who argue against wines in excess of 14% ABV are drinking wines somewhere near 13%. And basic mathematics will tell you that the difference in total alcohol intake between the two is about an ounce or so in half a bottle.

My advice to those who think that they can drink more than half a bottle of wine at 13% ABV is “don’t”. If you are drinking more than half a bottle of wine with anything other than a long and filling meal, you are chasing inebriation and denying it.

There are clues in the tech sheets that reveal lots about a wine. Reading them is useful to Steve Eliot and myself in understanding what we have just evaluated with the label hidden. But, very little in a tech sheet will tell us about wine quality. Two wines with identical alcohol and pH levels can taste entirely differently. And while my friend, Dr. pH, will tell me that a wine with high pH cannot possibly age in the bottle, I simply remind him of Chateau Petrus, not because it costs so darn much, but because it has a proven track record of ageworthiness—and, come to think of it, so do a whole raft of locally produced wines whose ability to improve in the bottle is no longer in doubt because we now have the track record to know otherwise.

No need to stop reading technical information if that is of interest to you, but please do not judge the bottle by its cover. Taste its contents. That is the only true measure of a wine.


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