Alcohol Content in Wine

The presence of alcohol is essential to the structure and mouthfeel of wine, but you can have too much of a good thing. I’m writing these words from Shanghai, a fast-developing international wine market, but one whose high-end wines are still dominated by a French influence. Defending their turf, the French regularly and effectively highlight the alcoholic strength of Australian and American reds, many of which leave 14.5% well and truly in their wake. Over this level, alcoholic strengths have the potential to unbalance most wines.

Alcohol is an important wine preservative, and it can make a contribution to flavour. It is warm, spirity, and very slightly sweet. Today its effect as a wine flavour and structural component is even more noticeable than ever. As for its effects as a stimulant...

Reds have become more alcoholic for several reasons. Modern viticultural techniques that expose fruit to the elements appear to accelerate the accumulation of sugar, so genuinely ripe fruit flavours do not appear in grapes until higher sugar concentrations are present. Furthermore, modern winemaking yeasts are converting sugar into more alcohol more efficiently. And, compounding the issue, many opinion leaders are still talking up the virtues of wines that are, frankly, out of balance, frequently dehydrated, and lacking length and brightness of fruit. These ’dead grape’ wines, as they could more accurately be described, also have far shorter cellaring lives than wines made from fruit harvested at its peak of ripeness.

As more over-ripe Australian wines made since the hot 1997 season are opened, their flaws are becoming apparent. Frankly, some of us were preaching this back then. In response, more winemakers are talking about balance in the vineyards and adjusting viticultural practices in an effort to achieve the flavours they are seeking with less sugar in the fruit. Furthermore, the companies that make and own the machines that selectively remove alcohol from wine are having a day out.

Different grape varieties deal with alcohol in different ways. Riesling can taste warm and spirity at anything over 12.5%. Its palate structure is typically flat, and alcohol levels above this tend to poke straight through. Chardonnay (in a Burgundian style) can be richer, more voluptuous, and focused on the mid palate, which is where the effect of alcohol is felt. Therefore it can mask the effect of alcohol to some degree. But I query any chardonnay over 14.0%. Sauvignon blanc handles somewhere between, around 13% at max, while Semillon makes a more balanced wine at 12.5% or less.

Cabernet sauvignon is typically leaner in the mid palate, where alcohol is most assertive. However, warmer seasons produce more alcoholic wines that tend to develop more palate richness. Straight cabernets need to be pretty good and concentrated to handle over 13%, while the addition of merlot (with its mid-palate presence) enables blends to handle 14%. Beyond that, I frown.

Shiraz and the other Rhône varieties do have profound mid palate presence, especially in warmer, riper seasons. However, I’m still concerned at the number of ’hot’ tasting shirazes with alcohols above 14.5%, which become noticeably hotter after a few years. I have yet to taste a shiraz at 15.5% or over that would not have been a better wine with less alcohol. Oddly, despite its not uncommon fragility, pinot noir can handle 13% alcohol or even slightly above with surprising ease.

It’s also worth remembering that some labeling regulations permit a fairly high degree of elasticity when recording the alcoholic strength of wines. That’s largely because it’s very difficult to get consistent results for the same wine, since the precise measurement of alcohol in wine is a relatively inexact science. Different laboratories frequently arrive at different results for the same wine. So, it’s entirely possible that a wine whose label declares a strength of 14.5% could in fact be a whopping 16% by volume, well in excess of what I believe is a balanced level in table wines.

So, examine the tears or legs inside the glass of wine, which can indicate very high alcoholic strengths. Don’t reject a wine on this visual basis alone, but don’t be surprised if the wine might smell excessively spirity, or taste rather too warm and/or sweet, which are the most obvious effects of an unbalanced measure of alcohol.

Would you sit down to drink a 150 ml glass of port? I doubt it. But you might easily be doing the closest imaginable thing...