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03.25.2008

Stop Whining About High Alcohol Wines

It's time for my fellow journalists, winemakers, and opinionated wine lovers to stop whining about high alcohol wines. Along with so called "green" wines, this bandwagon of opinions is the topic du jour for wine journalists and wine personalities around the country, and in addition to being tiresome, it is just plan silly.

Complaining about alcohol levels in wines is ridiculous for 5 main reasons.

REASON #1 - Alcohol is Not the Sensation People Dislike

Apart from the people who are just complaining that they want their wine to be less alcoholic so they can drink more (whom I address below), most people seem to be complaining about alcohol levels in wine as if the percent of alcohol by volume %ABV is directly correlated to a wine tasting good or not. Of course many put subtler points on their arguments and mention words like "balance" and "heat" but at the end of the day, most people seem to be blaming alcohol levels in wine for characteristics of wine that are only correlated with alcohol levels, not caused by them.

Of course some people dislike wines with a "hot" finish, or that are unbalanced in favor of ripe fruit. But that is not the fault of alcohol levels. In fact, it's quite possible to have those characteristics in wines that don't exceed the "sanity" threshold that so many "anti-high-alc" advocates set somewhere (you'd think all these people who are so religious about this issue could agree) between 14% and 14.5% ABV.


REASON #2 - "High Alcohol" Wines Can Be Great Wines

There are plenty of excellent, balanced wines being made by great winemakers that exceed the 14% alcohol levels that many deem too high for "good" wine. I've reviewed a lot of them favorably. So have a lot of other critics -- even those who are now complaining so loudly about alcohol levels in wine. The idea that wines "clocking in" at 14.6% or even 15% alcohol are all "monstrosities" is patently absurd, and also insulting to hundreds of talented winemakers around the globe.

Everyone also seems quick to slam high alcohol wines as not age worthy. Frankly, I haven't seen anyone provide definitive data on this subject, and there are plenty of higher alcohol wines (Ports, Sherries, etc) that might prove otherwise. Not to mention what some consider to be the single greatest wine in the world. The alcohol level of the "ageless" 1947 Cheval Blanc? 14.4% ABV.

REASON #3 - Most People Can't Tell

I'd bet good money that most (say 95% of) wine consumers, even those who buy wines in the "super premium" $20 and above categories pay absolutely no attention to the alcohol levels in their wine when they buy it. And furthermore, they couldn't possibly tell you, if tasting a bunch of wines, which ones had higher alcohol and which ones didn't. Which is to say that 99% of the time, they wouldn't even notice that a wine they happened to be drinking was 15.2% alcohol.

As far as I can see it, a large part of this "issue" consists of a minority of wine lovers proselytizing their own preferences for low alcohol wines (which they have every right to) on the rest of the world who, frankly, have about as much idea what they are talking about as I do when the Jehovah's Witnesses stop by my house on a Saturday morning.


REASON #4 - Most People Don't Actually Care About Food Friendliness

Even if most wine drinkers did know that their wine was high in alcohol, they couldn't care less. Have you ever noticed how many people drink martinis and mojitos and cosmopolitans with their food? Clearly Americans could give a rats ass about whether their drinks make their food taste better and vice versa. Clearly this is disappointing for those of use who enjoy the occasions when a great wine can make a meal that much more exciting, but we are a minority of the wine drinking public and the wine buying market.

Plus, don't get me started on all those who say high alcohol wines don't pair with food, and then drink port and sherry with their dinners. As I've said recently, dictates about what goes with what are a load of bunk.

Those who say they need wine to be less alcoholic so they can drink more wine need to simply stop buying higher alcohol wines. It's as simple as that. I have to scratch my head when I hear people complaining that they're drunk by the end of the bottle. If you don't want to get drunk people, the best way is to drink less alcohol.


REASON #5 - We're Not Going To Hell In a High-Alcohol Hand Basket

Alarmists like to cite the globally rising alcohol levels in wine. Some studies from Australia apparently pinpoint the average alcohol levels in wine there to be around 12.8% in the 1970s and now around 14.5%. Anyone used to consuming older wines, even occasionally, will certainly have anecdotal evidence that this is true.

OK. Well.... so what? The idea that the 1970's was the golden age of California (or any other New World region) winemaking is ridiculous, as anyone who actually tasted a lot of those wines will tell you. While there certainly were people making decent wine back then, a lot of it was crap.

I'm personally not sure why these alcohol levels are going up, but I am sure that it is probably due to a number of different factors, many of which were illuminated by winemaker Clark Smith in an excellent article on the subject this past September.

Chief among these, I believe, is simply the fact that most people (i.e. the market) actually are buying higher alcohol wines more, because.... wait for it... they like the way they taste. And no, it's not Parker's fault. As Smith correctly points out in his article, Parker rates low alcohol wines very highly as well.

Which is why winemakers whose wines are "big" (and often higher in alcohol) tend to sell better. People just want to buy them. And if winemakers want to feed their families and be able to afford health care in retirement, they need to make wines that sell.

Ah, the joys of capitalism. Wine lovers complaining about all those high alcohol wines in the world are sort of like smokers who like to bitch about the fact that they can't smoke on planes anymore. When the market demand gets high enough, things shift.

But that doesn't mean that just because there is preponderance of demand in the marketplace for bigger, boozier wines, low alcohol wines with finesse are somehow under threat.

To suggest as much would require you to also believe that just because the most popular wine in America is White Zinfandel that all those Cabernet producers in Napa are in danger of being pressured to make pink wines.

No, people just need to stop whining and go out and buy the wines they love. And expect everyone else to do the same. Trying to "educate" consumers by telling them they're wrong to like big wines is as stupid as trying to tell winemakers they're wrong for making wines that they (and consumers) love.

Sure it's fine to try to make better wine at lower alcohol levels if that's what you want to do. Sure it's fine to only want to drink wines like that. But for pete's sake people, let's find something better to whine about.

Any suggestions? While you're thinking about it, I'm going to go drink a nice 12.5% Chinon, and then finish my evening with a Turley Zinfandel.

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