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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.

Comments (11)

nedhoey wrote:
04.26.05 at 1:23 AM

Issue 5 of Fine Wine(from the UK)arrived today with a short article on the back page on this subject.
The gist? It's possible to get fully ripe
grapes with lower sugar levels if the
growers take the right steps.

Alder wrote:
04.26.05 at 8:50 AM


Thanks for the comment. Care to share with us what those steps were ?

Jack wrote:
04.26.05 at 7:36 PM

I've had too many "highly rated expensive wines" with 15+% alcohol in the past year or so that tasted great for the first ounce or two, but then - most of the time I didn't want to finish the glass, much less the bottle. They match poorly with food. They're piling up in my cellar;

So Alder, I'm hoping these winemakers get with it soon (lowering alcohol), as wine needs to go with food, not people.

Jack wrote:
04.26.05 at 7:42 PM

Btw, I feel the Too Much Alcohol in Wine is one of the two BIG stories in wine today (the other being the French not being able to sell their lesser wines easily).

Jack wrote:
04.26.05 at 10:34 PM

I do think the winemakers/wineries are in a tough position. Most of the highest Parker-rated Petite Sirahs, Zins, California Syrahs and Australian Shirazs have high alcohol levels. The high scores enable these wineries to retail these wines for $40-$75 or much more. If these winemakers/wineries were to make these same wines more food friendly (say 13.5% alcohol), how can they not fear getting a lower score and therefore decreasing the value of all of their wines? Sort of a Catch-22, eh?

Yet, you don't see an Alban, a Turley or a Saxum (for example) in Parker's Hedonist Gazette dining reports. And Parker has admitted his cellar is 90%+ French (and so are his tastes, judging from what he drinks in the Hedonist Gazette). So scoring these hedonistic high-alcohol fruit bomb wines 95 pts (or whatever) that he's tasted rather than had a bottle with dinner is, well, not right to me. Afterall, these wine don't come in 2 oz bottles, do they?

jerry jeff wrote:
04.27.05 at 7:46 AM

As a casual wine drinker, I find this to be a big issue. First there is the issue of taste, which I guess should be the main issue. No matter how robust a zinfandel is, if it is 17% (or even a few % below that), for me the alcohol often overpowers the taste. And is it just me, or does high %s affect the nose as well?

Then there is the drinking of the wine. Some of these high % wines give me heartburn and general digestive discomfort. And yes, I should be able to share a bottle over dinner with my girlfriend and not wake up the next morning with a blinding headache. Previously you could open a bottle of wine and not think about it. I don't think it's good for Americans' acceptance of wine if you have to be "careful" each time you pour a glass. Finally, I think many will join those people who say that red wine gives them headaches (from the sulfites and various other reasons), when in reality it is just the high alcohol. Also not good.

Jonathan wrote:
04.28.05 at 10:16 AM

High Alcohol content has mirrored high wine ratings. The riper the wine the higher the score. Winemakers compete by picking riper grapes.
Their still are a great many wines out there that are more balanced. But do we chose to buy them or do we buy something with a high score? As consumers we have had a big hand in the high alcohol content of wine also.

Donald Baumhefner wrote:
06.18.05 at 3:32 PM

Yes, unfortunately most winemakers try to obtain those high ratings by making alcoholic monsters. But not all of us do that. I have a Pinot Noir at 13.5 that has been very well accepted at Zuni, Plumpjack, and downstairs at Chez Panisse. I also have a Chardonnay at 12.9% and a Cabernet Franc blend at 13.9%. I hope never to have to make anything over 13.9%. And remember, if it says 14.0%, it could aactually be 15.5% by federal law which allows a 1.5% leeway. And if it says 13.99% it cannot be 14% or anything higher than 13.99%. But it could be 12.5%. The 1.5% leeway only applies above OR below 14%. Yes, it is a crazy law, but then again, it was established by the Alcohol tobacco and Firearms feds who were responsible for the Waco, Texas disaster. I welcome all comments, Don Baumhefner, winemaker for Coeland Creek Vineyards

Donald Baumhefner wrote:
06.18.05 at 3:33 PM

Sorry, that is Copeland Creek Vineyards. Don

Romando wrote:
08.27.05 at 4:00 AM

If the global trend is towards extreme alcohol and extreme dryness, I say let it be so because the more unpopular the fruity-racy-low alcohol-refreshing-well balanced-tasty wine gets the least I have to spend. To me, as far as spicy Asian cuisine is concerned, excessive alcohol, dryness and wood is often a foe. Let the wines be delicious.

Helen wrote:
11.16.05 at 11:49 AM

It depends on your weight. But wines are not suposed to content much alcohol.

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