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09.17.2008

Facts and Opinions about High Alcohol Wines

Compared to sports fans, wine lovers of different stripes don't have a lot to have really heated arguments about. Even when my fellow wine geeks get into it about whether Romanee Conti is worth the money, or whether Biodynamics is more voodoo than science, there's less vehemence than you'd find at any pre-season football game.

If there is one exception to this rule in the mild mannered arena of mutual wine enjoyment and camaraderie, it may be the modern hysteria about rising alcohol levels in wine.

I've written before about the degree to which I think that this is a tempest in a teacup, and largely confined to a small segment of wine connoisseurs, critics, and journalists that can afford to care and complain about the issue. Most wine drinkers, I maintain, have no idea nor concern over the alcohol levels in their wine.

Despite this fact, the number of news stories, discussion threads, conversations, and, yes, arguments about the topic continues to increase, fueled in part by global warming and its presumed involvement in rising sugar levels at harvest.

There can be no denying that average alcohol levels in wine, especially red wine, are rising around the world. A simple survey of California and Bordeaux wine levels going back the last three decades will show an average increase of between one and two percent alcohol by volume, or more specifically a rise from somewhere in the low 13% level to somewhere in the high 14% range at the moment. Of course, it is also true that increasingly there are many red wines from California (as well as places like Australia) that are tipping the scales at fifteen or even sixteen percent alcohol.

So people continue to complain, and the issue continues to be a scab that I can't help picking at. It's stupid, but strangely pleasing.

There are two main complaints voiced against the rising alcohol levels in wine. The first is that such wines don't pair well with foods. I'm going to leave that argument alone, as there is some truth to it. Though I will point out that, again, the average wine drinker doesn't perceive this problem. Just as they don't perceive a problem with ordering a glass of Merlot to go with their oysters.

The second complaint against these higher alcohol levels in wine is usually expressed to me as follows:

"The problem with these blockbuster wines is that I just can't drink as much of them as I can a nice low alcohol wine. Back in the day, I used to be able to put away a whole bottle by myself, but now, one or two glasses and I'm drunk as a fish."

That's not a direct quote from anyone, but if I had a dollar for every time I've heard it, I would be able to quit my day job and work on Vinography full time.

This particular argument has always struck me as a little implausible. But I'm not a biochemist, and I'm not great with statistics, so I've never been able to marshal enough information to call bullshit. Which is why when I found out about a place called the Alcohol Research Group, I jumped at the idea that there was someone there who could speak with more authority on the facts of the matter.

So I talked with some people who went to school for about four times as many years as I did, and who sit around doing research on alcohol all day long. Dr. William Kerr is the Director of The Alcohol Research Group's Methodological Studies Component, and Dr. Tom Greenfield is the Group's Senior Scientist and Center Director. Their center devotes its time and energy to researching various topics about alcohol to inform public policy and public health action.

I asked them if they could explain to me the effective difference between a wine at 13% alcohol and 15.5% alcohol in terms of the amount consumed.

"Comparing 13% and 15.5% wines," says Greenfield, "at the 2 drink level there is not a huge difference in the amount of alcohol consumed. It amounts to about 1/3 of a glass of the 15.5% wine."

"3 glasses of each differ by less than one glass of either-- they differ by just over 1/2 a glass of the 13% wine (or actually very close to 1/2 a glass of the 15.5%). In a similar simplistic comparison I also conclude that 5 drinks of the 13% is close to (just a tiny bit over) 4 drinks of the 15.5%--they differ by less than 1/4 glass of the 13% wine."

Dr. Kerr went on to suggest that sometimes bigger wines at higher alcohol levels may take lighter drinkers by surprise: "In our recent Bar Study in 10 Northern California counties we found most mixed drinks were around 12 or 13%, one indication that people may prefer contents around this level of alcohol by volume."

He also went on to note that some studies done on beer show that people tend to drink the same amount of beer, regardless of its alcoholic strength, and hypothesized that the same is probably true for wine.

"A wine at 15.6%ABV (alcohol by volume) is 25% higher than a wine at 12%ABV. So if you drink 4 glasses of the higher ABV you will get one extra drink as compared to the lower %ABV wine. A wine at 14.6% is 33% larger than an 11%ABV wine so it will take only 3 glasses to get one extra glass."

So what to make of this?

It's clear that someone who used to be able to put away an entire bottle of 13.2% ABV California Cabernet should have no problem drinking most of a bottle of modern 15.5% ABV wine, even accounting for the difference that their ABV's would make in the effective rate of alcohol consumed per hour over their dinnertime.

While there may not be that much of a difference in the amount of alcohol that someone consumes between a 13.5% alcohol wine and a 15.5% alcohol wine, it is certainly true that alcohol can change the sensory qualities of what's in the bottle, and those effects may very well be objectionable to some.

Higher levels of alcohol in wine are often accompanied by various sensations on the palate, ranging from a thicker, more viscous body to the wine (thanks mostly to the qualities of Ethanol), as well as the alcoholic heat that is, in my mind, the true scourge of high alcohol wines. The presence of this heat, however, is not constant. Some wines, which I simply assume are just better made (though I don't know exactly how) don't betray their alcohol content with heat, while others (the cheaper, more mass produced ones in my experience) can sear the throat badly.

Finally, there is some interaction between alcohol and our perception of the taste of wine, as anyone who has ever participated in a "sweet spot" tasting can attest. These tastings use some fancy modern winemaking technology to adjust the alcohol levels in a batch of wine. By using the same batch of wine, but adjusting the alcohol in .2% increments, a tasting of a given wine from 13% to 15% can be conducted, while all other variables in the wine remain the same. The effects are quite interesting, though I'm not sure they are consistent either from wine to wine, or from taster to taster. What I can say is that most people find a specific level of alcohol that "tastes best" to them, and there can often be broad agreement among tasters on the "sweet spot" for a given wine.

So alcohol levels do change our experience of wine, but not in such clear cut, absolute, and negative ways that all this carping that I hear from the wine industry might suggest.

It's time to stop throwing around categorical statements about how life used to be better when wines were lower in alcohol. If you liked the wines of the early 1980's more than those now, I suggest you do some searching online. There are plenty for sale at relatively inexpensive prices. Or better yet, just start making wine the way you want it to be, and those who agree with you will buy it if it's any good.

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