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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.

Comments (24)

gianpaolo wrote:
09.17.08 at 11:35 PM

As a wine maker I have to say that I'm often puzzled with this issue, for two main reasons. The first is what you just said, it doesn't really matter in term of the amount of alcohol that your body intakes when you drink a 13,0% or a 14,5% wine. It's just a small difference when you measure the total quantity of alcohol between three o four glasses of the two wines. So we are actually talking about nothing here.
The secondo is that the alcohol content of a wine it's almost not always a winemaker choice. Sometime people ask: couldn't you make it with a lower alcohol content? Well, the answer is often a no. Alcohol is a by product of your terroir. Whilst making a 11,5% wine in Bordeaux will probably result in a good, rich and complex wine, the same doesn't apply in Tuscany, expecially certain part of Tuscany, such as Maremma. But think about Sicily, or Southern France, for instance. Whilst I think that in the past there has been too much focus on the concentration of wine, something that I'm personally revising in praise for more elegance, different terroirs have a different growing and ripening pattern for grapes. If I pick my Sangiovese (or another variety for that matter) when at 12 % potential alcohol, it won't certainly be ripen. It's going to take another month or so in the field to get the tannins, the poliphenols and all the rest that make a grape suitable to produce a good wine to develop. During this time the sugar will accumulate in the grapes, as a byproduct of the ripening process not the main goal for winemaking. Alcohol doesn't really define if a wine will be good or not, but for sure a 11,5% wine from Sicily will not be good, whilst it could well be a classic wine from a northern area.
I wish there was a way to reduce the alcohol. Giacomo Tachis, the winemaker that created the Sassicaia, once said the research should focus on producing yeast strains that could be less effective in transforming sugar in alcohol, and more in other byproducts such as higher alcohol molecules or other natual chemical compounds that are always found in the fermentation process naturally. I don't know why, no biotech company has followed this brilliant idea. They'd rather focus on aromas, blah blah blah.
Sorry for the length of this comment.

1WineDude wrote:
09.18.08 at 4:15 AM

Well, I suppose it had to happen sometime... I finally disagree with Alder... ;-)

Alcohol also imparts taste (in terms of its chemical structure being similar to sugar and 'fooling' our taste buds).

If the alcohol is too high and isn't in balance with the strength of other factors such as fruit, structure (acids, tannins), etc., then the wine simply won't taste as good as it could.

This will also impact the finish, where the alcohol can dominate and mask other (presumably more delicate and preferred) aspects on the finish (fruit, etc.).

So... I'm not saying things were *better* when alcohol was lower in wines... I'm saying that some of these wines taste like crap.

Alder wrote:
09.18.08 at 6:14 AM

Wine dude,

Well I don't disagree with anything YOU said. Don't read my latest rant as an endorsement of all high-alcohol wines. Far from it -- I agree that some of them are downright nasty. But in my opinion, that actually has little to do with the fact that they have high alcohol, and more to do with the fact that they are simply made poorly.

WhatIsWine? wrote:
09.18.08 at 6:20 AM

Let's say there are three types of high alcohol wines.

1. High sugar levels create high alcohol.
2. Same as one, but reverse osmosis or a similar technology is used to remove alcohol. Still high alcohol, but tweaked down.
3. High sugar levels in grapes, but through bleeding off juice and watering back pre-fermentation, less alcohol is produced.

I have no problem with #1. Adler is right, the market will determine the fate of these grapes. I personally find many wines of this style wonderful.

The problem is in #2 and #3. First of all, it is not uncommon for wineries to lie about these practices. Second of all, the consumer (and the producer) have little information on which to base their expectations for the age-ability of these wines. Specifically, what of all the trace elements normally filtered out by the vine's roots that are dumped into the must during watering back? How does this disrupt the (still little-understood by science) chemistry of aging?

Traditionally, 14.5% is high for Pinot Noir. Maybe not shockingly so, but still high. What about this year, when North Coast Pinot is coming in at almost 31 brix, yet is being made into 14.5% wine? (Alright, most vineyards are below that, but several are up there this year.)

So, my concern is not that high alcohol wines are 'bad,' but rather those wines that are moderately high in alcohol but made from super-ripe, raisined grapes. I had a Russian River Zin at 17.2% recently. I wasn't a huge fan, but I bet many people would be, and that's good. But those wines in the 14-15% range that seem super-concentrated and ready for a few years of age -- I expect that many will fall apart rather than improve, due to this surreptitious lowering of alcohol from super-high to merely high.

Steve wrote:
09.18.08 at 9:13 AM

There isn't that much more chocolate in an 85 percent bar
versus a 70% bar, but the 70% is by far a much more popular
and favorable chocolate level. It's also like a photograph
with increased contrast with less overall tonal grades. It's
eye catching at first, but has no finer detail within.
More cocao and more contrast is not better.
Perhaps it's the same with the greater alcohol;
there needs to be more fruit and more tannin to balance things
out. With more of all three, I'd think that taste buds get
tired out sooner and also explains the imbalance when paired with
subtler foods.

Steve wrote:
09.18.08 at 9:53 AM

I'd like to add that I'm not
trying to say higher alcohol is better or worse. In fact,
I don't see any problem since many low alcohol wines
are still made. With another food analogy, Chunky Monkey
Ben&Jerry's ice cream is not going to threaten the existence
of Italian gelato. Ben&Jerry's pounds you over the head with
an ultra rich sugar bomb in comparison with gelato, but it has
its fans. Similarly to low alcohol wine drinkers, gelato lovers
can voice their outrage with the garish nature of Ben&Jerry's and
how they simply cannot eat as much without feeling sick, and it's
their right. There is no debate here. It's just different foods
for different people with their own opinions.

Mike Pollard wrote:
09.18.08 at 12:07 PM

My feelings about high alcohol wines are similar to those of Alder; some are good, some nasty but most of all don't tell me that I shouldn't drink them or that they should not be made.

In terms of the amount of alcohol in wine with different percentages, I posted on this a few months ago.

The reason for the post was based on the fact that there is considerable evidence that consumption of alcohol can have beneficial health effects, however the recommended consumption differs between countries. Thus, given wines with different levels of alcohol, how much can you consume before your blood alcohol content (BAC) exceeds what might be considered healthy, and then how much can you consume before you are over the legal limit. Given that the recommended consumption in the US is two drinks (one drink being 5 ounces or 150 ml) or 28 grams of alcohol you could drink 2.8 drinks (420 mls) of a 12.5% wine or 2.2 drinks (330 mls) of a 16% wine.

In terms of exceeding the legal limit of blood alcohol., if I drink 4 glasses at 5 ounces a glass (600 mls total, so not quite a full bottle) then the 16% will make me just legally impaired at a BAC of 0.084, while the same amount of 13 and 14.5 % wines will not –assuming I drink the same volume of wine over the same time period. So while I have no problem with high alcohol wines it needs to be appreciated that the more of these wines you consume the greater is your chance of exceeding a legal BAC.

Stephan wrote:
09.18.08 at 2:30 PM

In my experience, wines at 12%, when drunk at a normal pace, cannot even get me so much as tipsy. My theory has always been that the metabolism rate of my liver is just fast enough to break down almost all the alcohol and avoid saturation (which is where alcohol accumulates in one's blood and causes a buzz). At 13% just a little bit of the alcohol can not be metabolized (in this model 1%) and it will reach my blood stream. Following this simplification, at 15% the saturation is three times as high as at 13% which is why I will be three times as affected by the wine I drink as I would have been at 13%.
Am I wrong with this assumption? Maybe Dr. Kerr could shed some light.

Wine Investigator wrote:
09.18.08 at 3:16 PM

I have recently found some new wines that advertise the fact that their wines are low on the alcohol scale to make them food friendly. I am interested to give them a try. I like to have more than three glasses when we go out and I simply can't these days. I end up making a fool of myself.

Greg wrote:
09.18.08 at 8:36 PM

All science aside, I think 15+ % wine does not go with food. 14.5% even and it starts to be hard to focus on the food. It does make a pleasant after a meal beverage.

Morton Leslie wrote:
09.18.08 at 9:16 PM

It's not really an issue of the alcohol. The alcohol is just the symptom. The alcohol serves to mask heavy extraction of phenolics from skins, seeds, and barrels that together with the alcohol give the wine the impact that gets it big points in a side by side tasting. I personally do not drink wine with dinner on the basis of what is the most extracted and thickest in finish. I drink it to refresh my palate and compliment my dinner. When I say I cannot drink that block buster, 95 point testament to tannin and oak, I say it because it is too heavy and ponderous to satisfy what I desire from the wine. Most people I know who say they don't like the high alcohol in wine are really talking about the cough syrup structure of the wine, not whether it gets them drunk.

A minor point, but alcohol levels in Bordeaux and California reds were more commonly in the low 12% level in the two decades after WWII into the 70's. Their rise coincided with the advent of side by side tasting of young wines by critics.

Georgia wrote:
09.18.08 at 10:01 PM

I find more subtleties in the taste of low 12% alcohol wines versus wines with high 13% and above alcohol levels.

ScottS wrote:
09.18.08 at 10:59 PM

I'm also going to have to disagree with Alder on this one.

The stated % on the label and the actual % are not always the same.

A small % difference at the same consumption rate adds up over time.

3. For a glass or two on a weekday, no, not much difference. But to me, there is a tipping point in what I consider the 4th glass -- now that's a buzz! But not something I necessarily want.

If my 3rd glass by volume is treating me the same as a "4th" drink by alcohol content, I have to watch it. That tipping point is both experiential at the moment and in terms of my judgment and willingness to drink yet another glass, after which all bets are off.

So I watch it, and I drink better and more healthy because I do. I pay attention to the %, and pour smaller glasses of stronger wine, trying to slow my pace so I can enjoy the sensory aspects of the wine without getting accidentally crocked. Without wading into the food angle or the overall balance, elegance, and subjective qualitative aspects of higher alcohol wines, 2% difference is meaningful to me. And don't get me started on the joys of Riesling!

What I don't like is absolutism on the subject, because there are many truly awesome wines above 14.5% and even 15.5% You can't make up an arbitrary cut-off about this, and there are flabby wines that are also high-alc whose primary problem is lame acids or simple fruit that is all the more obvious in the presence of heat. The heat is still not a plus, and often a minus, but a bit of a red herring sometimes.

Still, I avoid high-octane wines (unless) and appreciate wines that are naturally lower in alcohol.

Disappointing schlock like Mollydooker or Martinelli, is it the alcohol or something else? I don't really care if they are poorly made or not, or if their brutishness can be explained by something besides the alcohol, the fact remains that they are high-alcohol wines that don't perform well, especially at the table, and do earn high scores. Perhaps it is oversimplified to blame the octane, but these beasts must be tamed. (Err, I just have to not buy them).

Rusty wrote:
09.19.08 at 8:16 AM

Agree with Alder or not, high alcohol is definitely the wine-geek conversation topic of choice. Not to be trite, but for me, the issue isn't 15.5 or even 17%, it's balance. Even more important (and something I'm surprised hasn't yet been mentioned) is whether or not high alcohol wines can age well. I don't know the answer since I don't have a lot of old wine around, but my sense is that lower alcohol and pH, combined with higher acidity (i.e., lower Brix at harvest) would be critical for a long-lived wine.

Vintuba wrote:
09.19.08 at 10:31 AM

I think one point that has to be reiterated is that fact that with an increase in alcohol comes the decrease of acidity and balance.

1WineDude was absolutely right: "If the alcohol is too high and isn't in balance with the strength of other factors such as fruit, structure (acids, tannins), etc., then the wine simply won't taste as good as it could." I could not agree more, it is all about balance! More often than not extreme high alcohol wines tend to lack that needed balance between acid, alcohol and fruit and this is a problem. I for one also agree that higher alcohol wines are less food friendly than wines that strike that delicate balance.

Adler, thanks for doing the leg work on the number of glasses you would need to drink to get your buzz-on at different alcohol levels, however I think you missed the point. I assert that with a higher alcohol wine the first glass can be enjoyable but the more you drink the less appealing such a wine becomes, kind of like foie gras a couple of pieces are enjoyable but too much and you want to barf! Their kind of like Pamela Anderson in a bikini that is 2 sizes too small, intriguing at first but after one look you have seen it all, it is far more sexy when a wine or women reveal herself slowly over time.

Another point worth mentioning is serving temperature, we as Americans tend to serve our reds too warm and our whites too cold. When you serve a 16.5 abv Zin at a BBQ, on a hot summers day where the wine reaches 85-90 degrees, it is going to burn the nose hairs right off because the alcohol volatilizes faster and masks the fruit, you take that same wine and serve it at 65-70 degrees and you would surely claim that the wine was not too high in alcohol.

There are modern day alternatives to high alcohol wines but one should not expect to find them in hotter climates such as Napa, Dry Creek, Tuscany, and Barossa Valley but should look farther a field to the Loire Valley, Sonoma Coast, Central Otago, Jura, Marlborough, Oregon, and many more… Just don’t make the mistake to think that you will find rich jammy fruit, low alcohol, and low acid!!!

Arthur wrote:
09.19.08 at 11:33 AM

Who here among us has not discovered that a wine evolves over the course of a bottle? With the big alcohol blockbusters being fatiguing to drink (even as casual, social drinks and not necessarily with food), I think that the big alcohol just detracts from that experience. Not that big, hot wines made to be drinkable within two years off the vine (and thus having limited longevity) actually possess the stuff to develop complexity.

Dylan wrote:
09.19.08 at 1:25 PM

Alder,

For the argument of how someone claims to get too easily drunk off the new-age bottles, have you considered they have just become bigger light-weights since the "good ol' 13% days"?

Time has done funnier things.

09.19.08 at 4:53 PM

I am glad Gianpaolo has echoed the sentiments, at least to some extent, that I have been putting out for some time. There is a 'right time' to pick or rather a range of 'right times' to pick.

Whatiswine, somehow makes the case that watering back will effect aging. I find this difficult to buy into, this whole thing about 'trace elements'. Look if one is adding water they are likely adding somewhere in the neighborhood of 5-10% water, 15% would likely be extreme. In reality you aren't really adding all that much to the wine in terms of 'trace elements' You would likely get as many 'trace elements' from the fittings, hoses, and other tools of the winemaker as in the water one might add to the wine. Not to mention weather or not these 'trace' elements would stay in solution, potassium for example precipitates and many other compounds in wine are charged and would likely bind these molecules. I am not saying that watered down wines do age, I am simply saying that the other elements of the grape chemistry that relate to aging, namely acidity and tannins, are not at a point that will contribute to longevity if a wine needs to be watered.

Alder,

You comment about how some wines show alcohol more than others. I have had many conversations with winemakers in the pacific northwest ( oregon and washington ) that seem to think that wines from these regions 'hold' thier alcohol better than the same varietals from California. My preliminary conclusion is that it is related to physiological maturity. The climates in wash. and oregon are such that, generally speaking, at a given degree brix, wine from these regions will have a greater degree of physiological maturity than those of Cali( I will acknowledge that this is a generalization and that there are exceptions ). This higher degree of maturity may result in 'more flavors' and thus provide a better balancing point to the alcohol. This is a big part of the problem I have with black and white declarations about %ABV and 'balance', it isn't a black and white issue.

Lastly I would like to throw this hand grenade out there: Is it possible to make a 'balanced' wine at 17% alcohol? Could a wine have the combination of TA, pH etc to balance a wine this high in alcohol?

Arthur wrote:
09.19.08 at 5:33 PM

Jerry:

"Lastly I would like to throw this hand grenade out there: Is it possible to make a 'balanced' wine at 17% alcohol? Could a wine have the combination of TA, pH etc to balance a wine this high in alcohol?"
Are we talking about intrinsic juice chemistry and indicators (without acidulation, etc) or the finished stuff? ;)

Alder wrote:
09.19.08 at 8:05 PM

Jerry,

Thanks for your thoughtful comments, as always. Balance means different things to different people. A wine that I consider balanced, another person might not. To me, balance means an equilibrium between the fruit, the acid, and the alcohol in a wine, so that a wine is neither too syrupy nor to shrill with acidity. I think it is probably possible to make a wine at 17% alcohol that does not have the bad qualities that people object to in high alcohol wines -- hot finish, bitter edges, etc. I don't however know whether this would require acidulation on the part of the winemaker, or not, however. And I'm not sure that some people would call it a balanced wine.

Andres wrote:
09.20.08 at 11:47 AM

as many, my opinion about alcohol has always been balance. balance with the rest of the components of the wine. just like sugar, acidity, extraction and others, alcohol plays an important role in the whole constitution of a wine. if the alcohol is high, it doesn't automatically imply it will be heavy and overdone and undrinkable. if the components are there to support that high alcohol claim, then the wine will taaste as it is all balanced nicely together. integration and balance allow any component in wine to be counterintuitive of another component in the wine. the harmony of all components is what brings out a fine finesse, enjoyability and drinkability. touche!!

Chris Robinson wrote:
09.21.08 at 10:02 PM

I think the alcohol issue is currently moving from apocryphal to pretty solidly based, but not totally empirical findings that suggests it is an enjoyment issue. For example we have a zin/primitivo that comes in at 16% alcohol. We think it is a very good wine and so do consusers as we sell it like hot cakes. But we always notice at tastings that the bottles with some residual wine left over are usually that Zin. We also find from retaurant feedback that this wine is a slow drink, whereas our pinot disappears much faster. I think the impact of alcohol is not incremental but rather S shaped. This makes sense if one takes into account all those liquor laws that suggest you can drink so many glasses of alcohol in a given time, but that quantity gets smaller as time goes on. So the issue is not how much alcohol abut whether that incremental volume makes a difference. It is about how the body processes alcohol at 13% versus 16% and the argument seems to be less well and less enjoyably at the higher incremental level. We are not talking taste or balance or anything else, just how well does the average wine drinker process that incremental alcohol? On observation there is clearly something going on that suggests the difference between 13 and 16 is not 3!!

johnmathew wrote:
10.08.08 at 11:20 PM

First of all, when making a high alcohol wine, you have to resign yourself to the fact that you are fighting an uphill battle. This is because wine yeast has been bred for decades to produce wines that are 10 to 13 percent alcohol, just like the wines you'll find at the store. So when you
attempt to make wines that are beyond 13%, you must understand that it is necessary to nurture the fermentation along.

Alder wrote:
10.09.08 at 7:36 AM

John,

My understanding is that for the last 20 years commercial yeasts have been bred to increase several desirable characteristics, chief of which is the ability to ferment to dryness under as many conditions possible, within a reasonable amount of time, which has yielded yeasts that are more than capable of handling grapes past the 26 brix point that will ferment to 15 or 16 percent alcohol.

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