TN: 2012 Martinelli Zinfandel "Jackass Vineyard", Russian River Valley

I’ve had a long-term fascination with this vineyard and wine. Unusual, but enjoyable. Extreme alcohol - 17.1% (but little or no detectable heat). Light, transparent ruby. Expressive and attractive red fruit aromas. Bright, intense red fruit (strawberry, raspberry, rhubarb) flavors. Excellent depth and length. One of the most interesting aspects to this wine is that it is not sweet, but rather on the savory side. Interesting to see how this develops.

Different strokes … The one time I had one of these, a year or two ago (don’t remember the vintage but it was pretty current), it was like lighter fluid to me. I think that was “only” 16-something.

Aren’t the yeasts supposed to die before the ABV hits 17%?

John, this is the highest alcohol Jackass I’ve ever tasted and it shows little heat (I’ve had scorching examples myself). Like I said, it is a surprising wine - it doesn’t come off ponderous, syrupy, hot or sweet. I’ll see how the bottle develops.

As you know John, enjoyable wine can be unpredictable and it comes in all sizes and shapes!

I see a Parker 100 pointer in the making.

Despite the high alcohol Glenn, I honestly don’t see this as RMP’s style (although the fruit intensity is certainly impressive! [cheers.gif]

My understanding is that there are now cultured yeast strains that can tolerate over 17 abv.

I think this wine would certainly be interesting to try, but I can’t see myself enjoying more than a glass, just too boozy.

Beau, it is certainly not for everyone, particularly at the tariff charged ($75). For me, however, it’s fascinating and highly enjoyable.

I’ve only had 2 or 3 examples of this wine. I know I had the 2001 and 2002 and possibly the 2000. I liked the Jackass Vineyard but not the price and did not find it excessively hot. The Jackass Hill however I did find too big for my tastes.

The Jackass Hill is impossible to procure, I’ve found, even for a mailing list customer as charming and persuasive as myself (I’ve tried). As far as I can tell, this is the world’s dearest and costliest Zinfandel.

A Jackass Hill sweet Muscat, did, however, just come into my possession. Looking forward to tasting this.

I was on the list for years before being allocated a single bottle of Jackass Hill. It was the reason I signed up in the first place and I bought a lot of wine before ever getting a chance to taste it. Let down does not even start to explain my feelings once I finally tasted the few bottles I was able to buy. Important lesson that I learned back then.

Just wanted to say that there certainly are plenty of ‘commercially available’ yeasts out there that are capable of taking wines ‘dry’ to over 17% alcohol - it’s not common, but there are a few that can do it.

That said, there’s a good chance that they may have a ‘house strain’ that is capable of doing the same, a strain that they isolated from other ferments and that they maintain in house. I don’t have a personal relationship with the winery, so I’m not absolutely sure about this.

Normally with wines this high in alcohol, you tend to get a sweetness from the fusel alcohols that are present - it’s more of a ‘perceived’ sweetness than an RS thing . . .

At Fess Parker back in 05 I believe, we had a single lot of syrah that went dry at about 18% alcohol - poured it at a syrah symposium with a regional somm who thought that syrah ‘was not balanced unless it was 14% or lower’ . . . I asked him what he thought of it in front of the 200 or so folks that had gathered, and he said he loved the balance - I was a newbie at that point and didn’t feel like ‘one upping’ him in front of the group, but man o man did I have a good laugh . . . [cheers.gif]


Larry, let me ask you a related question. Do yeasts, or maybe certain yeasts, ferment wine from the same Brix to higher alcohol %s today than they did, say, 20 years ago?

Joe Davis said that, or at least I think so (I may have misunderstood over a bustling dinner conversation), and I found that very interesting as part of our frequent discussions here about rising alcohol levels in wines.

I’m not Larry but to answer your question, no, yeasts have not found some magical way of creating more alcohol from a gram of sugar. You can go lower but not higher. Winemakers, however, have a better understanding of yeasts and how to help them withstand higher alcohols.

By the way, one of the most alcohol tolerant yeasts that is commercially available (ferments to 18+%) was isolated from an uninoculated, indigenous ferment of Jackass Vineyard fruit by Burt Williams and Ed Selyem. Also, since all cultured yeasts originally came from the wild, obviously there are strains in nature that are quite alcohol tolerant.

Thanks for the reply, Mike. Can I follow up on this comment above? If I understand correctly, you ferment to dry while getting a lower final alcohol because of your choice of yeast? How does that work?

[By the way, I opened a gorgeous 2009 Carlisle Montafi zin last night. Beautifully pure and fresh, especially after it had been open an hour or so. Mid 15% alcohol, but no heat and great balance.]

Here’s the rub, for my at least. Based on your note, it sounds like a zin I would probably enjoy. Unfortunately, if I really enjoy a wine I tend towards more than a taste or even more than just one glass. at 17 percent, that’s tough for me to do.

Nice. Adam Lee doing just that several years ago is what got Siduri on my radar. Taking the dogma down a notch!

Regarding the yeasts and ABV, IIRC Sam Adams Utopias is naturally fermented to 27%, so there must be some really tolerant yeasts out there. And as Mike pointed out, coaxing them with the right doses of oxygen and nutrients at the right time to get them to perform.

If I understand correctly, you ferment to dry while getting a lower final alcohol because of your choice of yeast? How does that work?

No, not really. I’ll try to explain better. Each fermentation is it’s own unique microbial soup with each species of bacteria and yeast all doing their own thing but each being influenced by others. Output metabolites from one species’ metabolic pathways can serve as inputs to or influence other metabolic pathways of other species. (Saccharomyces alone has over 300 pathways, although probably only a subset are at work in must.) It’s incredibly complex and virtually impossible to know what is truly happening other than seeing glucose/fructose decreasing, ethanol increasing, and CO2 being given off.

What I meant by you can go lower but not higher was simply that it’s possible to end up with a lower conversion factor depending on what the microbial soup does but you can’t get more alcohol than the maximum. But winemakers are not really in control of this. For example, a couple of years ago, we picked some fruit that had a sugar level that should have produced something close to 14.1% alcohol, assuming an OIV standard .594 conversion, but ended up at 12.5%, a .527 conversion. Why so low? All I can think of is that carbon must have been shunted down some other metabolic pathway. It was certainly nothing we did! The discussion on alcohol production of yeasts is further complicated by the way you ferment - sulfiting, inoculated/uninoculated, open top/closed top, punchdown/pumpover, cap irrigation, etc. Sugar measurement, when it is measured and how it is measured, also is a factor in calculating conversion factors. (Although none of this explains our ultra low .527 conversion.)

While winemakers can’t really control their conversion factors yet by choice of yeast, they may be able to in the future. Researchers in Australia discovered that the non-Saccharomyces yeast Metschnikowia pulcherrima AWRI1149 does produce less alcohol from sugar than other species. But we’ll never be able to select a yeast that provides more alcohol than the theoretical maximum. That would be akin to alchemy.

Extreme alcohol - 17.1% (but little or no detectable heat)

and that’s after it’s been watered back [snort.gif]

Brilliant, thanks for taking the time to explain that, Mike.

I wonder if my fractional understanding and memory of what Joe Davis was saying was, perhaps, that winemakers were using yeasts a few decades ago that had lower conversions, whereas today, yeasts are closer to the maximum conversion.

Or, maybe, I just misunderstood what he was saying entirely, which is a significant possibility over the table at a lengthy wine tasting dinner. Anyway, I’m at least glad it led me down the path to asking and learning from Mike in this thread.

There was an interesting thread on this topic some years back on the Parker board, started by a Central Coast winemaker (I can’t remember who it was). As I recall, there was some accepted wisdom then – or at least widely disseminated hypothesis – that current yeasts were producing more alcohol for the same sugar level. He argued that it might actually be an issue of measuring the sugar levels, which he said can be tricky. I don’t recall a definitive conclusion, but it certainly cast doubt on the idea that yeasts are responsible for the rise in ABVs. And I guess that squares with what Mike’s saying.