Which came first?
The Debate on High Alcohol Wines Rages On
Over the past year, I’ve reviewed many wines for my column "It's Grape" in the Tahoe Weekly, noting characteristics of look-smell-feel-taste-finish. But I also try to include an item I think is important: alcohol content.
Make no mistake – one glass of a wine that is 15-16% alcohol, and you are done. Better have someone drive you home, and if you serve those wines for dinner parties then make sure your guests are driven home or shown to the guest room for the night.
Good wines do not need to be high alcohol.
In my blog a while back, I had an expert write about high alcohol wines. Bruce Nichols, based in Naples, FL, is a Wine Consultant who provides professional wine cellar management, wine brokering for buyers and sellers, sommelier services, wine education and wine event planning. He is heavily involved in the world-renowned Naples Winter Wine Auction.
I can’t say it better than Bruce does, so here are some verbatim remarks from his newsletter, A Nichols Worth of Wine (http://www.napleswinenews.com/):
“High alcohol levels in wine is a subject that just refuses to go away. I’ve made my position on high-alcohol wines well known. I don’t like them. I find most to be one-dimensional - all fruit, no character. I find many can be overpowering and incompatible with the dining experience. I want to enjoy that second, and occasionally, third glass of wine over the span of a meal without the need for a nap between courses.
There’s also the concern of increased DUI enforcement. Many variables determine BAC (blood alcohol concentrations) currently set at .08%. Even factoring in body weight, gender, time, and food intake, two glasses of wine can push you close to or beyond this legal threshold.
Personal experience has taught me that a two-point swing in a wine from 12.5% to 14.5% can have a significant effect on acuity and I find it makes wines less compatible with food.
Assertions of vintners pushing hang time to the extremes to achieve ultra-ripe fruit just to please the critics' palates, and in turn garner higher ratings, are hotly debated. But I wonder if this isn’t a classic version of the chicken and the egg story? Which came first: the consumer’s taste for sweeter, full throttled flavors that the critics played into, or the consumer as lemming, hanging on to every 90-point score? Aren’t winemakers, for better or worse, simply producing a style the majority of wine drinkers demand?
These hyper-extracted wines come from ultra-ripe fruit with high sugars, which in turn raise the alcohol level. To combat this problem, many wineries resort to “dealcoholization,” literally reducing alcohol from the wine either through reverse osmosis or high-tech filtering. This in turn can require adding back in up to 15% water. The controversy between the purists and practitioners over this approach rages on.
Proponents, many of them winemakers, would argue that climate change has led to riper fruit, requiring adjustments in the winemaking process. The industry is quick to contend that as long as a wine’s components, acidity, tannins and flavors, are all in balance, then the higher alcohol levels are justifiable. To a large degree, this is true, but that does not address the DUI issue, or that these wines tend to overpower many foods. Opponents, a “natural, less-is-better” camp, contend this manipulation robs the wine of its character and structure and the wine’s terroir, or sense of place.
It is you and me, the consumers, who will ultimately shape the future on how much alcohol is in our wines. In the meantime, we consumers do have many options. Check out the mandatory posting of the percentage of alcohol listed on every label before your next wine purchase. There are many wines under 14%, although choices are fewer with California brands than the imports... for now.”
By the way, this writer really likes The Prisoner by Orin Swift… and it zips in at 15+% usually. So don’t expect consistency from me, wine is so individual! But I always have a designated driver…
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© 2010 Barbara Keck
For more information on dining and the wide range of activities around Lake Tahoe, see the online version of The Tahoe Weekly. This article appeared in my column "It's Grape" in May 2010.
Watch for my forthcoming book:"Wineries of the Sierra and Its Foothills."Publication date early Summer 2011, Wine Appreciation Guild Publishing.