Alcohol levels in Wine

Folks sometimes ask me about what alcohol levels mean in wine. This is a tough question to answer because different levels of alcohol can mean different things to the wine as well as to the person drinking the wine. We understand that alcohol consumption alters personal perception on many levels and that alcohol consumption affects different folks in different ways. We also understand that moderate and judicious alcohol levels in certain wines enhance the flavor components in that particular wine and that excessive alcohol levels can damage the nuance and charm of most wines. Let's look at the big picture.

Alcohol levels in wine come from many sources. We can let the grapes hang for quite a while on the vine where the sugar levels can soar and subsequently achieve, if we let the fermentation go to its conclusion, high alcohol levels. We can also inoculate, as in fortified wines, alcohol into partially fermented or fully fermented wine and rise the content to astro nomical levels. Winemakers can also play with harvest time or do some magic in the cellar and regulate levels of alcohol and sugar as well as oak and acids.

The bottom line is that we have understood over time that alcohol levels can be high or low but that alcohol can either enhance or detract from a glass of wine. It takes very little alcohol increase to make a wine "hot" where all we perceive is this heat over riding whatever else the wine might offer. High alcohol can mask or cover other wonderful flavors the wine might otherwise have. Nothing is worse, in my opinion, than having an underlying wonder of spice and elegance sitting in the bouquet or on the palate while being smacked around by waves of alcohol vapor.

I have experienced, in my wine life, otherwise lovely wines being lead by the nose by gobs of alcohol. It can be a real shame. Let's look at specific alcohol problems as well as alcohol advantages in wine appreciation.

Port thrives under "big" flavors. This is true with Ruby Port more than Tawny Port. Ruby Ports can be heady, filled with layers of fruit and have the heat from alcohol completing the picture. Huge fruit, ripe flavors and a good hit of oak require alcohol to bring the Port into balance. Many Ports sit at around twenty percent alcohol, and this alcohol is neatly integrated into the whole as a required component with the rest of the flavor components. In this manner it should never stand alone as the overriding or specific feel of the taste sensation. If this is the case, there's a problem. It is always, in any wine, a sense of balance and harmony which distinguishes a really nice wine from a wine which is marginal. Alcohol can be the killer.

As the temperatures rise, which we have seen in so many growing areas, so does the sugar and so does the alcohol as a result. Zinfandels grow well in hotter areas and these wines have become, over the last twenty years or so, pushing the limit of acceptable alcohol levels. Where, twenty years ago a ZInfandel would hit 14 percent alcohol and we would all raise our eyebrows, it is not uncommon for ZInfandel to hit a staggering 16 percent or higher on a regular basis! I've asked some of the producers what in the devil one would serve with these kinds of alcohol levels and the truth is that many of them simply shrug their shoulders. If they don't know what goes well with these monsters, how should we? Yes, many of these wines are Port-like but without the residual sugar to take some of the raw heat from the alcohol. I think this is a serious matter with Zinfandel and I shudder every time I am called to judge these wines commercially or have them served to me from suppliers at the Wine Cellar to sell to the public. These guys are the "more is better" school of winemaking, and I'm not keen on it at all.

If you want to kill a great Pinot Noir, keep the alcohol levels high. Pinot Noir is loved and admired for its nuance, not for its power and heat. Unfortunately we are seeing so many Pinots trying to be Syrah where the idea, much like Zinfandel, is about power. If you purchase a Pinot Noir sitting over 14.5 percent alcohol, be careful! Even a smidgen over, say,14.9 percent can make a huge difference in overall quality. In the wines I enjoy, I rarely go over 13.5 percent alcohol and find lovely wines in that level.

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