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Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Buying wine by the amount of alcohol

People buy wine based on many things

Maybe you're looking for a white or a red under ten bucks.  Maybe you want a Chardonnay from the Carneros area or a Cabernet from Mondavi Winery. Some buy a wine because they like the label or there's a note next to the wine in the store (a shelf talker) saying it got 90 points somewhere or another.

Do people buy based on the percent of alcohol in a bottle?  There's some controversy with New World wines being overripe and therefore high in alcohol compared to Old World wines.  Many will say it's just different so one's not bad and the other good.  There is some truth to this, but only to a point.

Personal experience with California wine has shown me that some have way too much alcohol. How do I know? The easy way to see this is in tasting as many of these wines will actually taste hot going down--like a shot of hard alcohol. Sometimes it's more subtle: the wine is too "soft," or too simple (tastes like cherry cola, for instance).
People love Biale Zinfandels!
They're usually pushing 16% alc

High alcohol wines are usually a poor choice for aging

A problem with these wines is ageability and I don't mean being able to lay down a bottle for ten years, but just a year or two. Overripe grapes and the resulting high alcohol also mean low acids in a wine.  In my experience these wines are at best, unpredictable for aging, and at worst turn to "crap in a bottle."   I've had high alcohol Zinfandel, Barbera, and others that were only a few years past vintage date and should have still been fine, but were poured down the drain instead.

High alcohol wines are usually a poor choice for food pairing

Mostly it's the softness (the lower acids) that don't stand up to a meal. It's like drinking a Pepsi with a shot of vodka in it with your dinner. Sound appetizing? Not to me. Not saying no one has ever had a Rum and Coke with their meal, but it's a whole different experience from having a proper table wine that matches the meal.

There's no need for any table wine to be over 14.5%  

So what is too high alcohol for a wine? As you approach 14.5% it's getting too high. I've noticed a number of Pinots with the telltale hot finish of alcohol as they get to 14.5% and higher. Heavier reds, especially Zinfandels, are often over 15%.

So why do so many winemakers produce high alcohol wines?  Because they are soft (low acid) and fruity and that sells.

One of the more food-friendly Zins
13.6% alcohol
Image from
Some, like whites and Pinot Noir, are best at 14% and lower. You can sometimes get away with a bit more than 14.5% in some big wines like Zinfandel, but it doesn't seem necessary. Once a wine approaches 15% it's no longer a table wine and can best be described as just an alcoholic beverage, like a cocktail.

To me, a red wine at, say, 13.8% alcohol seems better balanced than one at 15%.

Wine shopping

I find myself looking at the percentage of alcohol on a bottle when wine tasting or shopping.  I've had enough bad experiences with the higher alcohol wines to know this should be one of my wine buying criteria.