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Jancis Robinson on High Alcohol Wines

Based on responses to several posts in the past, I can see that alcohol levels in wine are a hot topic for Vinography readers. So when I saw this excellent piece by Jancis Robinson on the subject, I had to let you know.

She goes through the background of the debate, and the causes of high alcohol in wines, and some of the conflicts between growers and winemakers surrounding hangtime (which is all good reading for those who are unfamiliar with the issue) but then she brings up an astonishing fact that I was unaware of, which adds a whole new dimension to the debate.

It turns out that American wines over 15% in alcohol are effectively forbidden from being exported to America's largest overseas market: the EU. Apparently that 15% threshold requires a bi-lateral wine agreement to exist between the EU and the country of export. If it doesn't exist then the EU won't let the wine in, and like so many of our international trade agreements these days, this one just hasn't made the priority lists for American diplomacy.

Of course, the Australians, the Chileans, and the South Africans have all done their due diligence and struck agreements.

Of course, many wine drinkers would say that's the least of our worries, when the wine is to high in alcohol to drink.

Check out the article. It's a good one.

Comments (3)

Terry Hughes wrote:
07.16.05 at 5:25 AM

I did not drink for 22 years and, when I took up the grape again in 2001, I was astonished to see how high alcohol contents were in wines from every part of the world; the old days of 11.5 or even 12% % Bordeaux were clearly over.

This is a good thing in some ways. The thin, astringent wines of 40, 50 or more years ago--no one misses them. New agronomic technqiues and vinification methods have been beneficial and raised the overall quality level, there's no doubt about it.

Still, when we get to the point where we have 15-16% wines for the table, it's a bit unbalanced. I find such wines, as do many others, too hot and not at all food-friendly. And I for one do almost all of my wine-drinking in conjunction with a meal.

So, winemakers increase alky levels because they CAN, I suppose. But there is a market for such monsters, or the winemakers would find some other way to find a competitive advantage.

I have a hypothesis, which someone may disprove: Americans like such high-alcohol wines because the American taste is traditionally for hard liquor, and for the big kick booze gives your body. High-alcohol, rather sweet wines produce pretty much the same effect. A huge sugar load coursing through the system. A few glasses of this stuff and you're asking them to play "Melancholy Baby." Or you're passed out.

Thoughts, rebuttals, disputations, anyone?

Alder wrote:
07.18.05 at 9:47 AM


Thanks, as usual, for the thoughtful comments. I'm leery of your theory about the American taste for hard liquor because of our Puritain history. I think we'd be one of the least likely countries to have a cultural preference for high octane wines. I'd think it far more likely that we have a sweet tooth, and that we like our wines fruitier, and therefore picked later. The high alcohol just being a byproduct of our desire to drink wines that taste like jam or berry pies.

Terry Hughes wrote:
07.18.05 at 1:04 PM

I have to agree with the sweet tooth bit. How many times in my long life have I heard people say something like, "I didn't used to like wine--it was too sour for me --but I LOVE Cold Duck/Shiraz/[whatever]..." And they'd put away a couple of bottles in no time. Often the same people who favored Old Fashions and Sloe Gin Fizz and other high-cal drinks.

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