High Alcohol content in wine

Last night I enjoyed a delicious bottle of red Collioure from the Roussillon region of France. It contained 15% alcohol and it reminded me of how often I hear fellow wine lovers saying how they hate high alcohol in wines. Many of them would have avoided buying this bottle altogether, based purely on the number on the label. They are, however, more than happy to drink fortified wines with 20% or more? What’s up with that?

High Alcohol wine

I’m of two minds on this subject. There is such a thing as too much alcohol in wines, just as too much acid, too much tannin, too much sweetness, or indeed too little alcohol can be considered a fault in an otherwise good bottle. If the alcohol is in balance with all other elements, it can soar into the high teens or low twenties and still be the right amount. On the other hand, there are only so many wines made that can tolerate such high levels of booze. Any wine whose calling card is finesse, delicacy or vivacity would suffer with levels much above 13.5% or so. Wines such as Pinot Noir, Riesling, Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc just don’t have the stuffing (or need) for the burn of 14 degrees or more of spirit. There are, however, plenty of wines that count on such high levels of alcohol to achieve the kind of impact they are most famous for. Barolo, Zinfandel, Grenache-based reds such as Chateauneuf-du-Pape or Priorat, wines from dried grapes such as Amarone and select others can handle levels consistently above 14% and be really, really delicous. An extreme example would be a Port wine with 20% alcohol. As a fortified wine, one expects the alcohol to be high, however few complain when a perfect bottle is poured for them where this elevated level of alcohol seems right at home with the rich sweet fruit, magnificent complexity of flavour and strong (especially when youthful) tannins. Why shouldn’t non-fortified table wines be considered with the same respect? I remember with great fondness, the first time I had a Turley Zinfandel.

It was in the mid-90’s when I was the sommelier at a restaurant in Vancouver. Helen Turley was arguably the most famous female winemaker in California and she was churning out some monster Zins. We managed to get our hands on a few cases of several single vineyard Zins that were imported in Canada. It was the Moore Earthquake Vineyard, as I recall, with its 17.3% natural alcohol, that just blew my mind. It was an appropriately named wine – massive in all respects – from it’s deep colour to its densely packed fruit and chunky tannins. Even with such a high level of alcohol, the wine was not hot, a term used to describe wines whose alcohol burns uncomfortably the nose and palate. The fact is, without looking at the label, one might never have guessed this wine had alcohol so significantly above the norm. It was a wine to savour with robust meat dishes, or alone to warm one up from the inside out, on a typical February Canadian night with vicious wind gusts blowing at the window seams.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, a sublime single vineyard Biancospino Moscato from the star of the genre in Piemonte, Giorgio Rivetti of La Spinetta with its 4.5% alcohol, was the prettiest, most graceful wine that had ever pirouetted on my tongue. This was a wine to enjoy with the most delicate of fruit desserts or on a sunny Sunday morning with perfect eggs benedict with sauce Maltaise. Even though there is more than 12% alcohol difference between these two extremes (the standard level of alcohol in the vast majority of basic table wines in France) neither was out of balance. Bottom line is to be aware of the level of alcohol in a wine when making a purchase, keeping in mind that certain wines can accommodate high levels, however, before you become impregnated with bias and overly judgemental based solely on the label, taste the wine and give it a chance to tell you if its the right number or not.

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