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Hot or not: the great alcohol debate

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Alcohol levels in wine are one of the great areas of  debate in the contemporary wine world. To understand why, it’s important to understand what causes alcohol in a wine, and what effect on the final product those levels have.

 

Alcohol is a direct result of the fermentation process. Sugars in the grape juice are converted into alcohol during fermentation. If grapes have higher levels of sugar, and they end up with no sugar remaining, the final wine will have higher levels of alcohol than wines made from lower-sugar juice. Sugar content develops over the course of grape ripening – the longer grapes are allowed to ripen, the higher the sugar levels (measured in brix) found in the juice.


In France, Germany, and Austria – as well as some other regions – overall cooler temperatures and a relatively early harvest result in lower sugar levels, and therefore lower alcohol levels. Old World winemakers (and Old World consumers) tend to prefer low alcohol wines for other reasons – mainly that they believe it allows the elements of terroir to shine through, and allows consumers to enjoy the wine longer without experiencing palate fatigue. Some regions of the Old World – Italy, Spain, and the Rhône, for example – tend towards higher temperatures, and therefore higher alcohol wines. Even there, however, the style has traditionally been one of more restrained, low alcohol wines.


The main flashpoint for the discussion of high alcohol wines has been California. In the past thirty years wines in California have become consistently more alcoholic – to the point where it has become rare to find wines of less than 14% alcohol, and wines in the mid- to high-15% range are commonplace. There are a number of reasons for this: alcohol increases the body of a wine, and can help wines seem sweeter, as well as more textured. Some critics (most notably Robert Parker) have also promoted higher-alcohol wines (especially in California), and winemakers seeking out higher scores have ratcheted their alcohol levels higher and higher.


Climate change may also be playing a role – especially in Old World regions like Bordeaux. As temperatures rise globally, wines naturally ripen more quickly on the vine, making it easier to end up with higher-sugar grapes.


You’re likely to hear strong words on both side of the debate. An increasingly vocal movement is adamantly opposed to the trend towards higher alcohol wines, calling these wines ‘cheap’ and ‘heavy-handed’. Alcohol is a tricky creature, and is really something that should be left up to each individual’s tastes and to each individual wine. There are 13% wines which are unbalanced and taste ‘hot’, and there are 15.5% wines that are perfectly balanced and don’t betray a taste of strong alcohol. As a rule of thumb, avoid judging a wine based on the number on the bottle, and listen instead to your tastebuds when deciding whether the wine is too alcoholic or not.

 

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