Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Alcohol Levels in Wine

High-alcohol wines are causing a fair bit of discussion these days. With abv levels creeping ever higher, I find myself involved in more and more conversations (and arguments!) about what constitutes an appropriate level of alcohol in a bottle of wine.

Personally, I tend to shy away from super-high-octane wines: I often find them hot and, worse, unbalanced. Of course, not all wines with higher alcohol levels are unbalanced, and I’ve certainly enjoyed a number of wines in the 15% range that have found an excellent middle ground between power and finesse.

The key, as always, though, is that sense of finesse. And while wines in the 12.5% - 14% range can absolutely be unbalanced, it seems as if higher octane bottlings run a somewhat greater risk. How often, after all, have you opened a bottle of, say, super-ripe Barossa Shiraz and found it lacking in finesse? The best producers, of course, can craft wines of power and elegance, but it’s tough.

I read an interesting article yesterday, on the Web site of the NBC affiliate in San Francisco, about the ever-higher alcohol levels in wines from California. The writer notes that, “in California, a wine is declared a ‘table wine’ if it has an alcohol content below 13 percent. Those are becoming rare. Wines 14 percent or higher on the other hand have tripled in sales in the past decade...”

Some of this is due to popular tastes and the demand that some consumers have for the so-called “fruit bomb” style of wine. But it’s also due, in part, to the demands of the winemaking itself. “Vintners cite many factors for the growing alcohol content,” the article continues. “High-alcohol wines can get from the vineyard to the table faster. Lower-alcohol bottles need a lot longer in the wine cellar.”

Of course, all of the generalizing and intellectualizing goes out the window in the face of great wine, no matter how much alcohol is in it. I've had wonderful bottles at all abv levels.

Great taste, after all, is as personal as it gets.


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