Posts Tagged ‘alcohol

Is Alcohol Level Really That Important?

A favorite topic these days among wine folk is alcohol level — that is, are wines getting too alcoholic? Blame climate change (remember, warmer weather=riper grapes=more sugar=more alcohol), blame Robert Parker, blame the American palate, blame Fox News, but many think that the end result is too many wines with elevated alcohol levels. (Check out this post on alcohol levels and balance in Pinot Noir for an informative, if inside-baseball-ish, take on the matter.)

It’s true that overly alcoholic wines are no fun to drink: they’re not great with food, they lack subtlety — and they can make for an unpleasant morning after. But I wonder if people are making too much of the matter, with a slightly obsessive focus on the alcohol percentage number. That number can be helpful, but fixating on it can be misleading. Context, as they say, is all. Last week, I opened up a 14.5% Rhône blend from California that hit you like a blunt instrument: it was dull, massive, and sure to cause a headache. It was an expensive wine, a gift, and I weirdly felt obligated to finish it. Drinking it (over the course of a few days, of course) felt like a chore. Tonight, however, I cracked open a 14.5% Rhône blend from Australia that had me wanting one more sip, then another, and yet another. Sure, it’s a big wine, but it wears its size well, and with elegance. It’s the difference between:

and

I’m all for less of the former and more of the latter, but it’s the artistry and the effort, not the number, that makes the difference.

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Alcohol: The Friend (and Foe)

Alcohol is the most obvious component of wine — but the hardest to talk about. We’re all familiar with its effects on us, both good and bad, but we’re much less conscious of how alcohol influences the way a wine tastes and feels in our mouth. In some ways, alcohol fills the same role in wine that fat does in cooking: not only does it add softness and weight, but it also helps to carry the flavors and makes the beverage more palatable. It’s like that final pat of butter of dash of olive oil that makes whatever you’re cooking that much more delicious.

Alcohol adds weight and viscosity to a wine. In general, higher alcohol wines will feel fuller and rounder in your mouth. Even if you had no sense of smell or taste, you could register the difference between a wine with 12.5% alcohol (imagine a Cabernet Franc-based red wine from the Loire Valley, like a Saumur-Champigny) and a wine with 15% alcohol (a Zinfandel from Sonoma, for example) — just like you could tell the difference between a glass of skim milk and a cup of cream.

But for wine, as for people, there’s a fine line between the right amount of alcohol and too much, and once you cross it, watch out.
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