How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Alcohol

Alcohol. A colorless, odorless, tasteless substance that, in the last decade, became the subject of a major controversy in the wine industry. It has fired up some sincere passions and self-serving marketing distractions. Some wine critics propagate the theory that wine with alcohol levels above 11% are somehow “out of balance.”  What is the correlation of alcohol level and taste?

 

Sugars in the grapes makes wine possible. Grapes store sugars, as they mature on the grapevine. By harvest’s time, up to a quarter of the actual grape will be comprised of sugars. The winemakers use refractometers, as well as their own experienced palates to make picking decisions.

 

During the fermentation process, sugars break down and are converted by yeast into alcohol. Sugar’s role is crucial in dictating the wine’s final alcohol content. Ripe grapes make for more flavorful wines. Ripe grapes also produce more sugar.
More sugar produces more alcohol. So it follows that high alcohol wines are, in general, more flavorful and fruit forward.

 

Alcohol

In tasting wine, human palates react much less strongly to sweetness than to bitter or sour sensations. High acidity and tannins can mask a taster’s ability to detect sugar. That means that wines that are higher in acid will taste even less sweet and more savory despite its actual sugar content. When wine folks talk physiological ripeness, that’s what they mean – fully developed, mature fruit. Biting into a ripe peach at the farmer’s market is a different experience than tasting fruit that has been “ripened” on a truck on its way to the grocery store.

 

Grapes should be picked at peak ripeness. Waiting too long and allowing the fruit to over ripen results in cloyingly sweet, flabby, and awkward wines that people mistakenly associate with alcohol content.

 

Alcohol is clear and flavorless. It has no particular perfume. It’s just one of many components of the wine tasting experience that include scent, sweet, sour, bitter, umami, mouthfeel and the pucker of tannins.

 

In a climate like California, higher sugar levels, and therefore alcohol levels, is a reality. As usual in a wine, it’s a question of balance and therefore alcohol should never overpower the wine. When you feel the alcohol level in a wine, it proves that the wine is unbalanced and usually shows a lack of depth and concentration. It’s not a modern issue, one of the best wine ever, 1947 Cheval Blanc is 15%, yet no one talks about the level of alcohol, which proves my point. - Jean Hoefliger, Alpha Omega Winery

 

It’s clear that alcohol is a compelling confederate, if properly managed and thoughtfully treated. Alcohol level is only important if it is out of proportion to the rest of the wine’s components. Demonizing alcohol content is like disparaging fat cells in a prime steak – how are you going to get the essence of the protein without the fat?

 

In Pursuit of Pitiful Principles

 

When I first got serious about wine, there was no alcohol debate. My wine journey corresponded with the meteoric rise of Napa Valley cult wines, most of which were ripe, full-bodied and delightful. I was quite bewildered when this philosophy of “lower alcohol means more balanced wines” emerged and gradually took hold in some circles.

 

Some in the wine industry insist that there is a strong consumer trend towards lower alcohol wines. I have yet to see any hard data to support this assertion. In essence, two camps have emerged:

 

  • Those that are predominantly on the production side, who understand the vineyard and cellar realities and make logical, contextual choices at their wineries. They strive to make the best wine possible and allow the alcohol level fall were it may.
  • The low alcohol proponents who feel that it is the most important indicator of a quality wine. Taken to the extreme, a winemaker might be faced with diminishing the flavor characteristic of a wine in order to hit a magical “low” level.

 

Why advocate low alcohol as the path to perfect balance? Many such proponenets work on the marketing side of wineries or distributors, and they have an agenda: They have a warehouse full of low alcohol wine and they need to move it. Some are “purist” who are convinced that low alcohol leads to palate paradise. Others are seeking attention, self-aggrandizement and high speaking fees.

 

Wine

In the meantime, it clouds an already integrally disconcerting wine world. It plays on the vintner’s vulnerabilities. Small producers are caught in between. They can’t afford negative opinions and acutely feel the pressures of any market variations. Artificial arguments create false perceptions, such as high alcohol numbers on labels being a negative, which in turn, drives producers to chase low alcohol, whether in their particular case it’s warranted or not. It’s sad to see some stellar wineries fall in line for political reasons. Sadder yet to witness mislead consumer’s reactions.

 

Low-alcohol pundits sway a small percentage of patrons into mimicking the anti-alcohol rhetoric. Yet… I believe that people psychologically like the idea of lower alcohol wines but actually secretly drink higher alcohol wines because…they like them. They are well-made and taste great. They won’t freely admit it, but act differently in the privacy of their own cellar.

 

Old World Problems

 

First and foremost—weather.

 

New and Old

No one is going to argue that California is blessed with an extraordinarily good weather conditions. Several areas of the state enjoy the good fortune of a Mediterranean climate, with warm days and cool nights. It is a Godsend when it comes to growing grapes. California is often gifted with several great vintages in a row. For example, since 2000, Burgundy has had only one year of phenomenal growing weather, 2003. In contrast, California has had only had one challenging vintage – 2011; and that was only in certain areas. What does that mean? Well, we ripen our fruit to its full potential, can afford long hang time and don’t get hammered by weather-related events before or during harvest. California has produced ripe, full flavor (and high alcohol) wines as a result of Mother Nature’s meteorological largess. Is it a competitive advantage? YES. Would it give some marketing organizations that promote their regions an incentive to elevate the notion of lower alcohol, less ripe wines? You decide.

 

Not too long ago, many full-bodied, intense, jammy wines were getting very big scores. Some producers were feeling the pressure to make wines in that style. But what if their fruit couldn’t ripen sufficiently? Without the weather collaborating, vintner had a choice – leave the grapes on the vines well after they would typically be picked, and risk harvest perils, or pick the grapes early and add sugar, etc. in the cellar.

 

Or…perhaps promoting a different philosophy. The notion that under ripe is superior.  More elegant, sophisticated, nuanced. Just like that, it changes the conversation.

 

Drunk-speak

 

Some wine drinkers are concerned about getting drunker with, say, a 15% vs. 13% alcohol wine.  However, a little back-of-the-envelope math shows that an entire bottle of 15% wine contains ½ ounce more alcohol that a 13% wine. Obviously the differential is so insignificant that you wouldn’t likely notice. If you are hyper-sensitive, I would think that you would simply drink less. The whole thing strikes me as a red herring – instead of enjoying a myriad of wine’s varied characteristics we obsess on one minor variable.

 

Booze and Balance

 

Balance talk is everywhere these days. You can’t swing a cork on a string at a wine gathering without hitting at least five people engaged in “balanced” discussions. Once, at a wine seminar, I counted 36 mentions of the word in an hour’s time. Yikes. Why is it such a leitmotif of importance and unrelenting ubiquity?

 

Wine Balance

Historically, alcohol wasn’t a ‘bad guy’ at all, in fact the opposite was true. For centuries, high alcohol content ensured wine’s stabilization.

 

In truth, wines can be beautifully “balanced” at very high alcohols just as they can be utterly “unbalanced” at very low ones. It is almost certain that the balanced, and higher alcohol, wines will come across as very aromatic, concentrated, massive, bold, and with much sweeter fruit. Are we supposed to punish the wines that ooze hedonism by watering them down and thinning their essence, for the sake of low alcohol? No two wines are alike, so no two wines can be balanced in the same way. “Vive La Difference,” I say.

 

Grape Expectations

 

Grapes

In its pure form, the alcohol level of wine is contingent upon climate, geography, grape variety, vintage, and the winemaker’s stylistic preferences. In a distorted one, it is whatever the winemaker does to manipulate the wine to meet some arbitrary standard.

 

What about a candid expression of the grape? How are you supposed to express own-rooted old vine Zinfandel with 11% abv?! How about geography and soil? You are not seriously expecting the same numbers from a German Riesling as Australian Shiraz? Should a Beaujolais Nouveau, meant to be drunk rather quickly, have similar alcohol to a mountain grown Cabernet, that will likely age for decades? Would you resent an Amarone for outnumbering a Lambrusco?

 

What’s the Deal with…?

 

Incidentally, what’s with the taboo with the alcohol in wine, period? I routinely write about spirits that are over 50% abv…never heard anyone complain. Clearly there is a different expectation when tasting Vodka than Viognier but how about that “balance”? Not once have I heard anyone argue that too much alcohol has ruined it!

 

Theoretically, a fermented beverage, such as wine, can be as high as 18.5% alcohol. In truth, that’s neither here, no there. I’d rather spend time enjoying the wine for what it is than wonder what it isn’t. Should I feel the urge to debate, I’d rather talk about what makes it different, what’s unique, intriguing and stimulating.

 

Wine is alive, let it live and express itself. I believe winemakers should be able to make whatever style of wine they choose and never worry about alcohol levels. In my opinion, anyone who waters their wines down is conforming to pressure, real or perceived. Vintners should be proud of where their fruit originated and what it tells them. They should express the grape in its full force; alcohol numbers be damned.

 

I believe that those of us in the industry have a responsibility to fight ideological urges, and picking favorites, particularly at the expense of verity. Cheers to being together with the wine you love; in my case I am raising a glass of a 17% Zin from Lodi. Yum.

Ilona Thompson

Ilona Thompson is Editor-in-Chief at PalateXposure, a destination site for oenophiles, gourmands and luxury travelers. She also recently launched #Wine, a site dedicated to wines and spirits reviews, and #Photography, a site devoted to high-quality wine, food, and travel related photography.

6 Comments
  • You raise many good points, many supported in my article “Some Like It Hot.” Alcohol is remarkably low in flavor – what else can you put in water at 13% with such little consequence? Nothing, not even sugar, and most other compounds would render the beverage entirely undrinkable if not deadly. Yet it must be said that alcohol is far from tasteless. Try making non-alcoholic wine! Paradoxically, it is everything and its opposite: wetting but drying, hot but cooling, sweet but bitter.

    As John Gladstones explains in “Wine, Terroir and Climate Change,” the principle climate influence on brix is not heat but humidity. In California there is much water evaporated from grapes which does not occur in most of the U.S. or France, causing phenolic and flavor maturity to occur at higher brix.

    From a winemaker’s perspective, though, the inevitability of high alcohol as a consequence of true ripeness does not exist. There are many technologies my own invention among them, that are practiced by most winemakers to uncouple these two. The high tech solutions such as Spinning Cone and Reverse Osmosis account for nearly half of wine produced in California, but even more common is to simply add the evaporated water back. This practice should not be spurned as diluting, for savvy winemakers are aware that this actually increases the extraction of color and flavor into copigmentation colloids which are much more stable at lower alcohol.

    Besides inhibiting extraction, high alcohol also suppresses aromatics by solubilizing and masking fruit constituents. Many ageing experiments on alcohol-reduced wines and their untreated counterparts have shown that the same wine ages better at lower alcohol.

    The historical context is that 95% of California wine was over 18% alcohol in 1960, when we made almost nothing but fortified wines. After the Blue Nun revolution brought about by the advent of sterile filtration made possible by nuclear reactors, California switch within a decade to production of wines like Grey Riesling, Green Hungarian and generic Rhinewine, Chablis and Dry Sauterne, all made from grapes that ripen at 19 to 21 brix.

    It was only after the 1976 Paris Tasting that Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon began to be planted in any quantities, and we began the pursuit of bigger and bigger wines, heavy oak, intentionally buttery malolactics and an alcoholic punch.

    In my opinion, this has gotten out of hand, particularly in the Napa Valley, where in a recent tasting of twelve cult wines in the $200 range, the lowest alcohol was 16.9% and half the wines contained residual sugar, to say nothing of the raisin-y aromas and dry tannins characteristic of excessive hangtime. I would like to see the pendulum swing away from these “clown wines,” but that will have to wait for people to get tired of them. With new consumers entering the market all the time, these impactful wines are greatly adored by novices who can afford them.

    Lord love them for their patronage. For my part, I think California can make better European-style wines that the French, which is what WineSmith is all about. What I envision is a bifurcation of the market, with something for everybody. Which I think is also your position, which you have articulated so well.

    February 16, 2016 at 7:13 pm
  • Well-said! I particularly like the “Grape Expectations” section about the alcohol level needing to be what nature intends it to be. It might be also worthwhile to look up the quote from the owner of DRC some 150 years ago that a wine above 12% is good, above 13% is great, and above 14% is outstanding. I can’t remember the exact quote, but Adam Lee of Siduri once used it in a well-recorded debate.

    This is a worthy fight, Ilona. Might paint an even bigger target on you for those “in the fad”. I’ve certainly tackled this issue in a national producers’ forum over a dozen years ago and advocated the same things you are now – that a winemaker’s highest role is to make a wine exactly what it needs to be, regardless of the level of alcohol. You are giving the nuts and bolts of that argument beautifully, my dear! Keep up the good work and Happy New Year, Greg L

    December 31, 2015 at 4:13 pm
  • Ilona,

    I couldn’t agree more! One of the most amazing things about wine is its abilities to tell a story – a story of a sense of place, a year, a variety, etc.. Why should we be beholden to marketing speak or someone else’s ideologies of what makes a wine “good” simply based on their individual palate preference? Each of us is different, just as each wine and each wine’s journey from vineyard to bottle to glass. These things should be celebrated and enjoyed. Alcohol content and the discussion about high vs. low alcohol, in my humble opinion, is simply something for someone to hang their preconceived notions or ideas upon to justify their purchases or their comments in the contexts of reviews, discussion, etc. Granted, for some, there is a true preference for wines that are lower alcohol just as for others their preferences tend to higher, but to say that one is superior to another is not rational or fair to either category of wine and wine consumer. In all reality, we need to cut the clutter and the jargon speak in wine and realize that this is a food product and should be enjoyed for each individual wine’s merits. Just as a person may prefer their steak rare and another prefer well done and we don’t judge them for that, we should not judge a wine drinker by their wine preference. Rather, we should all be enjoying whatever wine it is that we each enjoy and we should all be enjoying it together!

    Cheers to a great year!

    Camron

    PS – Thanks for enjoying a great Lodi wine!

    December 30, 2015 at 6:26 pm

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