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04.25.2005

How Much Alcohol Is Too Much?

This article has been out for a while, but I thought I'd point readers to a nice piece in the International Herald Tribune (and New York Times) by Eric Asimov about a growing issue in the wine world: steadily climbing alcohol levels in most red wines.

How much of a problem is this? According to some people, it's a serious problem that makes wines significantly harder to enjoy, especially with food.

To others, it's simply a natural consequence of better viticulture which is now yielding riper grapes with more sugar (which then gets converted to more alcohol during fermentation).

I tend to come down on this issue more in the former camp than the latter. There really is no need for a Pinot Noir to have 15.5% alcohol, or a Zinfandel to clock in at nearly 17%, even if the winemaking is good enough to prevent you from feeling the heat of the higher octane. For every person who claims that this is a necessary by-product of the ripe fruit-forward styles of wine now being made, I can provide an example of a wine that has perfectly lush fruit without the excessive alcohol.

The article asks the question pointedly in the context of California wines, whose appellation regulations don't go so far as those, say, in France, which strictly regulate the maximum (and minimum) amount of alcohol allowed in wines. But California isn't the only place where octane levels are climbing. Australia, Spain, and even Italy are seeing rising percentages in their wines.

I'm willing to accept slightly higher levels of alcohol in my wines than several of my wine drinking friends. I have perhaps what you might call a higher tolerance for this trend than others. But not everyone shares my stamina.

Ultimately these heady wines will be self defeating. Most people I know want to have more than one glass of wine with dinner and still remember the evening the next day. Too much alcohol and people will start buying less wine, and that's not good for any of us.

Read the full article here.

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