Want to seduce someone this Valentine’s Day? Forget the lingerie, lipstick and silk-tie handcuffs—just ensure that the object of your desire drinks a little wine. Over a few glasses of wine, love is blind, or at least it’s wearing rosé-coloured glasses. Perhaps that’s why it’s one of the greatest social lubricants—wine has certainly done more to keep marriages together than beer. Wine embodies physical pleasure: With pheromones, its aromas are a heady mix and its velvet caress on the tongue both soothes and excites. What other drink is described as “voluptuous” and “curvaceous”?
In this episode of the Unreserved Wine Talk podcast, I’m chatting with you about not only wine for Valentine’s Day, but we’re also going to turn up the heat and talk about the rising levels of alcohol in wine.
You can find the wines we discussed here.
- What rule of thumb should you keep in mind when pairing wine with chocolate?
- Which wines can you choose when pairing with sweet desserts?
- Why does the alcohol in wine hit you harder now than in the past?
- What is fuelling the trend of wines having higher alcohol content?
- How does alcohol support wine and the tasting experience you enjoy?
- What can you determine from the tears coating your glass?
- Why does the alcohol in wine give you the impression of sweetness and texture?
- Does high alcohol really prove beneficial for New World wines?
- What traditional processes contribute to the high alcohol levels you might be accustomed to in wines like Amarone?
- Why do usually find lower alcohol wines coming from cool-climate regions?
- Where would you find most of the world’s most alcoholic wines being produced?
- Which white wine myth should you dispel?
- Why should you care about the steadily increasing alcohol content in wine?
- How do winemakers test grapes for maturity?
- How does climate change influence ripeness?
- How do modern winemaking techniques boost alcohol levels?
- What influence did Robert Parker have on the tasting profile of the wines you’ve tasted?
- Why might big wines be spoiling your dinner parties?
- How can you enjoy different wines for different purposes?
- Why shouldn’t you rely on alcohol levels reported on wine labels?
- What can you expect from the future of high-alcohol wines?
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If you want to give both bonbons and bottles, keep in mind that “death by chocolate” isn’t just a dessert. It’s a way of killing your wine too. - Natalie MacLean Click to tweet
Pinot Noir is one of the most difficult and expensive grapes to grow. That’s why it’s known as the heartbreak grape. - Natalie MacLean Click to tweet
To me, it’s simply alien when Pinot Noir tastes like Port and I have to put it in the fridge before drinking it to numb the alcoholic heat. - Natalie MacLean Click to tweet
Regardless of a wine’s style, alcohol is the skeleton that supports its texture, tannin, aroma and acidity. - Natalie MacLean Click to tweet
Most of the extremely alcoholic wines today are produced in warmer New World regions. - Natalie MacLean Click to tweet
It strikes me that we’ve confused power with concentration, strength with quality. That’s why some drinkers now believe that a wine can’t possibly be “serious” without big body and high alcohol. - Natalie MacLean Click to tweet
- Unreserved Wine Talk | Episode 109: How to Pair Wine and Chocolate with Chocolate Sommelier Roxanne Browning
- Unreserved Wine Talk | Episode 50: Pairing Chocolate & Wine, Harvest 2019 Update
- My new class The 5 Wine & Food Pairing Mistakes That Can Ruin Your Dinner And How To Fix Them Forever
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Want to seduce someone this Valentine’s Day? Forget the lingerie, lipstick and silk-tie handcuffs—just ensure that the object of your desire drinks a little wine. Researchers at Glasgow University have discovered that if you consume two glasses of wine, members of the opposite sex appear more attractive by about 25%.
Over a few glasses of wine, love is blind, or at least it’s wearing rosé-coloured glasses. Perhaps that’s why it’s one of the greatest social lubricants—wine has certainly done more to keep marriages together than beer. Wine embodies physical pleasure: With pheromones, its aromas are a heady mix and its velvet caress on the tongue both soothes and excites. What other drink is described as “voluptuous” and “curvaceous”?
(Naughty Frenchmen say the sturdy shape of a Bordeaux bottle reminds them of their wives, but the curvilinear Burgundy bottles conjure up their mistresses.)
Forget the line about candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker. Women find gifts of wine romantic.
That’s exactly what you’ll discover in this episode of the Unreserved Wine Talk podcast. I’m going solo on this one and chatting with you about not only wine for V Day, but we’re also going to turn up the heat and talk about the rising levels of alcohol in wine.
In the show notes, you’ll find the full transcript, how you can join me in a free online wine and food pairing class, where you can find me on Instagram, Facebook and YouTube live video every Wednesday at 7 pm, that’s all in the show notes at nataliemaclean.com/114.
I’m hosting virtual wine and chocolate pairing classes for several corporate groups and other organizations not just for Valentine’s Day but also throughout the year. I’ll also be hosting wine and cheese tastings. If you’re interested in my doing this for your group, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. You’ll also find my contact in the show notes.
Okay, on with the show!
The research firm Cyberpulse found that 59% of women ages 21-39 wish their sweethearts would give them wine, not candy, on Valentine’s Day. And London’s Sunday Times reported that wine tastings rank above all other venues for finding a date. The reason? Wine means spending time together.
However, if you want to give both bonbons and bottles, keep in mind that “death by chocolate” isn’t just a dessert—it’s a way of killing your wine too. Chocolate can dull the taste of wine, or even make it bitter—unless you select wines that are sweeter than chocolate.
Late harvest and botrytized wines from Canada and other New World countries make excellent matches for sweet desserts, as do icewines. And port has not only sufficient sweetness to stand up to the richness of chocolate or crème brûlée, but also the opulent texture too.
We talked about pairing wine and chocolate in-depth with the chocolate sommelier Roxanne Browning in episode and you’ll also find more pairing tips in episode 50.
If you really want to make your honey weak in the knees, nothing comes closer to the hearts-and-roses theme than the pink pearls of sparkling rosé. Real men and women do drink pink—particularly for the intoxicating scent of strawberries to tickle their noses.
But try not to overdo it. As Shakespeare said of wine, “It provokes the desire, but takes away the performance.”
So if things don’t work out with your amour, you can always drown your sorrow with a glass of pinot noir. Be forewarned though: Pinot noir is one of the most difficult grapes to grow—it’s known as the heartbreak grape.
So let’s make that magical transition now to high-alcohol wines based on my experience at a wine tasting a while back. Here we go.
My head pounds. My lips burn. My teeth sting. How could I have been so naïve? When the invitation arrived for “a tasting of two hundred blockbuster reds from the new vintage,” I was pleased, even a bit excited. Now I feel as though I’ve spent two hours with a drill-crazed dentist who thinks anaesthetic is for wimps.
At this tasting, five local importers are showcasing their wines to a handful of writers. The room is thick with the sweet smell of alcohol. On a long table in front of me are 65 bottles of powerhouse Australian shiraz. The next table has just as many robust Californian zinfandels. Past that point, my field of vision blurs. To get through so many wines, I can’t spend more than a minute or so on each. I throw myself into the task anyway. It’s only 9 a.m.
I’d thought that a mass tasting would help me to better understand the style of this year’s crop, but what’s hitting me hardest is how alcoholic these wines are. I’m already feeling hot under the collar with the first few samples. Don’t get me wrong: I like alcohol. It makes me happy, and stops me from being a tightly wound control freak as some people unjustly characterize me. (After we’ve shared a few glasses, I forgive these people.) Increasingly, though, I find that many wines today are too potent. To me, it’s simply alien when pinot noir tastes like port and I have to put it in the fridge before drinking it to numb the alcoholic heat.
If I just wanted booze, I’d have a martini. But I drink wine for its taste, so the last thing I need is the blowtorch finish of bathtub gin. It’s also tiring on the palate and on the body. After a few glasses of high-octane wine at home, I can’t taste food anymore. After dinner, when I watch CSI, I usually wake up just as they’re nailing the bad guy. I’m the victim of the wine’s blunt force trauma.
Yet wines haven’t always been this alcoholic. In the 1970s, for instance, two of the most popular wines were the German whites Blue Nun and Black Tower, with only 8 or 9 percent alcohol. Ten to 12 percent used to be the norm for reds. But in North America today, some blockbuster wines now go as high as 14 to 16 percent.
Why? One reason is changing consumer taste. In the 1980s, drinkers who’d become accustomed to strong cocktails started to prefer robust red wine. Red wine grapes are usually picked later in the season than white ones, so the resulting wine is often more alcoholic. What other factors are fuelling the trend? Is it vintner choices, wine critic ratings or some other reason? To answer these questions, it helps to understand first what alcohol is and what it does for wine.
Back in Europe in the fifteenth century, authorities determined alcoholic strength by dipping a rag soaked in wine, beer or spirit, and then lighting it. If it burned brightly, the liquid was alcoholic; if not, it was too dilute. As a later refinement, they mixed gunpowder with the alcohol before lighting it. If it flamed, it was “proved” as alcohol; a small explosion was considered “strong proof.”
In the later 1700s, when governments started taxing alcohol based on its proof, precise measurement was needed. French scientist Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac developed a formula to determine the percentage of pure ethanol in wine, using the recently invented hydrometer. Today’s European legal benchmark is 8.5-15 percent by volume; North America’s range is between 7 and 14 percent.
Regardless of a wine’s style, alcohol is the skeleton that supports its texture, tannin, aroma and acidity. Alcohol is also a solvent that extracts flavor compounds from the grape juice and helps to make them airborne so we can smell the aromas. When we swirl a glass of wine, alcohol coats the sides of the glass and then evaporates. This releases the wine’s fragrant organic compounds or, to use the jargon, it volatizes the esters.
Wine lovers refer to this coating of their glass as “tears” or “legs.” The higher the alcohol, the slower and more distinct the tears. This doesn’t indicate a better wine, just a more alcoholic one. This vinous fact is even mentioned in the Bible: Proverbs 23, 31 advises the devout not to “gulp down the wine, the strong red wine when droplets form on the side of the cup.” Maybe that’s what they mean by no more tears in heaven.
Although ethanol in wine is odorless and tasteless, it gives us the impression of sweetness. That’s why a full-bodied wine that’s completely dry can still taste sweet. That may also be why high-alcohol wines are so popular: they’re technically “dry” and hence perceived as sophisticated, but they still taste like jam. We talk dry, but drink sweet.
On the palate, alcohol gives wine its body or weight—that luxurious, rounded texture called mouthfeel. Too little alcohol makes a wine feel thin and watery, like skim milk. Too much makes it feel heavy and thick, like cream. But when alcohol is balanced with the flavor, tannins and acidity, the wine feels like whole milk. So if the wine is balanced, some connoisseurs argue, high alcohol isn’t a problem. They also say that high alcohol is vital to wines with rich flavors and strong tannins, enabling it to be consumed without aging. Otherwise, drinkers have to wait years for all of the wine’s disjointed elements to knit together.
They also claim that it’s unfair to judge New World wines by Old World standards. Wines from warm climates, they point out, are being true to their locale by being riper and more alcoholic. Grapes in these regions, such as zinfandel, shiraz and grenache, only start to express themselves at 14 or 15 percent alcohol. Similarly, chardonnay from these areas at 12 percent alcohol would taste green and stemmy, and is best at 14 and 15 percent. But I often find those chardonnays taste like rotting bananas. The price of power is finesse. The best ballet dancers have powerful thighs and calves to lift themselves, but they also have lean arms and beautiful points that create long, elegant lines. I admire this effortless length in wine too.
Of course, some wines have high alcohol for stylistic reasons. Italian amarone, for example, achieves its 14-16 percent alcohol from a traditional process of drying grapes on straw mats before fermenting them to concentrate their sugars and flavors. In fact, amarone is the only wine in the world to have a legal minimum required alcohol level, which is 14%. The Italians wisely view amarone as a wine to drink at the end of a meal, rather than one to accompany food. They call it vino da meditazione, wine for meditation. This raisining technique is catching on with some New World vintners who now use it on part of their grapes to add power to their wines.
Other wines are naturally powerful too. Chateauneuf-du-Pape, for instance, from the Rhône Valley in southern France, normally clocks in at 14 to 15 percent. These wines are made from a blend of up to 13 grapes, including grenache and syrah, that don’t achieve much depth of flavor until they’ve been left on the vine longer than early-ripening varieties. The longer growing period produces more sugar, which converts into higher alcohol.
Some wines can carry more alcohol because their other elements support it, the way tall people more easily hide extra pounds. Examples include white wines made from grapes such as chenin blanc, marsanne and viognier. Their deep, rich fruit flavors and vibrant acidity balance their strength. Dessert wines too can get away with more alcohol because their sweetness tempers their heat.
Wines with lower alcohol are usually made in cool climates. White wine examples include champagne, along with sparkling wines from other regions; riesling from Washington State, Canada, Germany and Alsace; grüner veltliner from Austria; and muscat from most regions that make it. Among red wines, examples are pinot noir from Burgundy, Germany, Oregon, New Zealand and Canada; gamay from Beaujolais; cabernet franc from the Loire Valley; and Italian red wines from Trentino-Alto Adige, Friuli and Valpolicella.
Even regions generally considered warm have their cool areas, such as Australia’s Adelaide Hills, Tasmania, and Clare, Yarra and Eden valleys; and California’s Carneros region, the Sonoma coast and the Russian River and Anderson valleys. Wines from those vineyards often achieve a balancing acidity because their grapes are exposed to the moderating influences of cooling breezes and morning mists from water or mountains.
Some warm regions deliberately create wines with lower alcohol for stylistic reasons, such as Greek assyrtiko and Portuguese vinho verde. Italian Moscato d’Asti, with its lovely orange-blossom aroma and a light effervescence, is perfect refreshment for a hot summer day. It has just 5.5 percent alcohol.
But most of the extremely alcoholic wines today are produced in warm New World regions such as Australia, South Africa, California, Chile and Argentina. Modern irrigation technology allows vines to grow in areas that were previously considered too hot. These sun-baked grapes make round, ripe, alcoholic wines.
Another factor is blends versus single-grape wines. French winemakers have traditionally blended various grapes to balance the fruit flavor with the acidity and tannin, whereas many New World producers have promoted their single-grape wines as brands: chardonnay, cabernet and merlot, all with their signature flavors. These latter wines are often described as “high impact,” “fruit bombs” or “expressive.” Personally, I’ve never liked them because they taste flabby, jammy and dull, like lemonade without the zest of lemons.
Still, it’s unfair to accuse only New World wine of this habit. Many Old World countries, such as France, Italy and Spain, are doing the same today and marketing them as modern, revitalized styles. Even Bordeaux, that paragon of elegance, has become increasingly alcoholic. In the 1970s, few Bordeaux wines had more than 12 percent alcohol, but that resulted in green, stemmy, underripe wines during cool or wet years. However, the hot 1982 vintage created a style that was richer and more alcoholic than ever before—prompting U.S. wine critic Robert Parker to declare it the vintage of the century, thereby launching his own professional reputation. Since then, Bordeaux seems to be averaging 13 percent and higher, especially the expensive “garage wines” made in small lots from Saint-Emilion.
Some drinkers have the misguided notion that all white wines are lower in alcohol than reds. That kind of delusional thinking is why so many people (like me) choose to drink white at lunch, believing that we’re showing some sort of restraint. Ha. After just one glass of full-throttle Californian chardonnay (which can taste like tropical fruit salad slathered in butter), I need a nice long afternoon nap. The upside is waking up refreshed just in time for evening cocktails.
A nap is what I could use right now, even though the wine tasting is in full swing and it’s not yet noon. Although I dutifully expectorate each mouthful of wine after I taste it, I do allow a small amount of the best wines to trickle down my throat to test their finish. (I’m very thorough about this sort of thing.) As well, a little bit of alcohol is absorbed through the skin of my mouth and throat. So for every fifty samples I taste, I probably consume the equivalent of a glass of wine—and that adds up.
As the day wears on, my spitting technique becomes less refined, more like dribbling. Between that and my increasing enthusiasm for swirling my samples, the purple-stained napkins are piling up around me. My voice rises, my carefree laugh floats across the room, until someone inevitably asks, “Enjoying yourself, Natalie?”
Where was I? Oh yes, back in the vineyard, talking about grapes. “Ripeness is all,” as Shakespeare once said and a growing number of winemakers agree. But how ripe is too ripe? Since 1920, the sugar content of grapes has been assessed with a tool called a spectrometer, which measures degrees of brix, or baumé, oechsle or KMW depending on the region.
In the 1980s, most Californian vintners picked their grapes when they had achieved 23 degrees brix, which crept up to 24.8 in 2001. That translated into a rise from 13.1 percent alcohol to 15.1 percent. In Australia, the average alcohol in red wine rose from 12.4 percent in 1984 to 14 percent in 2004.
Getting uptight about a few percentage points may seem neurotic. But think about two wines, one at 12 percent alcohol and the other with 16 percent: would you rather have three glasses of wine or just two? It comes to the same amount of alcohol. While we may not notice alcohol creeping up over the years, the result is a bit like the experiment in which heat was slowly increased under a frog in the pot of water—eventually we too become cooked, or at least, our brain does.
What’s happening is that winemakers have stopped relying solely on their brix readings to know when to pick their grapes and are instead tasting them for maturity. As grapes ripen, their seeds turn from green to brown, their skins thicken and develop more flavor and color, and the rasping tannins soften. Fruit flavors mature from a puckery vegetative-green, to ripe fresh fruit, to overly ripe jam and chocolate and finally to cooked and burnt.
Rather than considering sugar content, vintners now assess the overall physical ripeness of the fruit’s flesh, seeds and skins by tasting. This “phenolic” maturity relates to the development of the natural compounds in grapes that are responsible for the wine’s eventual color, aroma, flavor, bitterness, texture and astringency.
Therefore, vintners have started leaving grapes on their vines longer in the fall, a waiting period called “hang time.” That’s because phenolic ripeness is more a function of time than of heat. I liken sugar in grapes to the intelligence quotient (IQ) in people and phenolic maturity to emotional quotient (EQ). Even young children can have a high IQ, but only with time can they develop the wisdom that equates to a high EQ.
On top of all these changes, another factor influencing ripeness may be global warming. The earth’s climate has fluctuated for centuries, but some scientists believe that it’s never before shown such rapid temperature increases. According to the American writer Tim Flannery in his book The Weather Makers, nine of the ten hottest years on record have occurred since 1990. Aubert de Villaine, winemaker for the famed burgundy Romanée-Conti, notes that harvest dates have moved back by about a week per decade since the 1970s: grapes are now picked in mid-September. The heat wave that swept Europe in the summer of 2003 had temperatures that were 7.7oF (4.3oC) higher than previous averages.
Later harvesting isn’t the only factor boosting alcohol in some New World vineyards. In 1980s and 1990s, after the phylloxera root louse destroyed many Californian vineyards, they were replanted using European-style trellising and canopy management. This exposes the grapes to more sunlight, speeding up their metabolic process. Modern vines, custom-grafted in the nursery, also photosynthesize sunshine into sugar far more efficiently than their ancestors. Some vintners choose certain clones of grapes that highlight the black fruit flavors in their wine, making them taste more robust and, in my opinion, more appallingly uniform.
Another technique that growers use is “green harvesting”: slow-ripening bunches of grapes are pulled off the vines and discarded. This forces the vines to concentrate their nutrients in the remaining grapes. Even in regions where irrigation is legal, some producers choose to dry farm their vines, so the grapes dehydrate, further concentrating their flavors. Done early in the season, this makes the vines conserve their nutrients for the fruit rather than wasting them on leaves. This is actually one of the few natural ways to develop the phenolics in the fruit earlier, and thus, to balance the sugar and phenolic development. They may also try other natural approaches, such as using rootstocks and clones that aren’t too vigorous, trellising the vines to make them work for their nutrients, removing shoots and leaves early in the season to concentrate the nutrients in the remaining grapes and using yeasts that ferment the wine at a lower level of alcohol. But for many producers, especially those in hot climates, the natural way of reducing alcohol is either difficult or expensive.
Another advance that helps to keep the grapes on the vines longer, especially in damp, cool regions, is better sprays against rot, mildew and fungal diseases. Viruses that once attacked vine leaves have almost been eliminated, so the leaves stay green and keep absorbing sunlight throughout the entire growing season.
Once the grapes are picked and taken to the winery, other factors can increase alcohol. In some regions, vintners add sugar to the fermenting wine to increase its alcohol—a practice called chaptalization. This is legal in some regions, especially in cool climates where the grapes don’t fully ripen, but not in others. Some critics liken feeding more sugar to yeast cells to force-feeding geese to make foie gras.
Even the yeasts themselves are changing. Ten years ago, most natural yeasts produced 13.2 percent alcohol from grapes harvested with 24 brix. However, modern cultured strains can convert that same sugar into 14.8 percent. These Godzilla yeasts can also survive high-alcohol environments of 16 percent or more, which kill natural yeasts.
The fermentation vessel is changing too. In the 1970s, open fermenters always lost some alcohol due to evaporation. Today’s closed steel fermenters avoid that leakage, and result in a degree or two more alcohol. During fermentation, some producers concentrate the grape must further by draining water from it. Some say this is a necessity, especially after a wet harvest, when grapes are bloated with rain. Others condemn it as a lazy fix for vintners who over-crop their vines and then try to force concentration into the wine. However, the practice seems well entrenched. It’s estimated there are more than 2,000 vacuum concentrators in Bordeaux alone, including those at some of the most august châteaux.
The post-fermentation aging phase can also increase alcohol: some water always evaporates out of the wooden barrels, further concentrating the wine by as much as a percent. Wines bottled immediately after fermentation don’t have this issue.
The problem is that all these technologies and techniques are becoming standard procedures, rather than used occasionally to correct technical or climactic problems. Oenology programs, such as the one at the University of California at Davis, have been blamed for training winemakers to create technologically “optimized” wines.
By this time, I’m on my fifty-first zinfandel and starting to feel thoroughly optimized myself. Maybe marathon tasting isn’t so bad after all. Perhaps wine tasters are like runners: eventually the endorphins kick in, you break through the pain barrier and just go with the momentum. That seems to be the case for most of my colleagues. The chatter in the room is cheerful and loud, and their pink faces radiate goodwill. A flowering tenderness floods me with love for all these BEAUTIFUL people.
Still, there’s no denying that these wines are punishing. Like so many today, they’re both alcoholic and oaky. These “termite specials” club your palate until it’s numb, assaulting you with flavors and tannins that haven’t yet smoothed out. If the death of elegance had a taste, this would be it.
You might argue that vintners aren’t creating these styles in a vacuum, rather they’re responding to consumer demand. That demand, in turn, is driven by critics’ ratings, particularly those of Robert Parker. Winemakers who craft their wines to his apparent taste for denser, darker, alcoholic wines are said to “Parkerize” them. Competition medals have a similar effect in Australia, where they have more than forty wine shows a year. There too, high scores reward big wines that taste good by themselves, without food.
Some vintners claim Parker’s reviews just reflect the ratcheting up of our entire sensory environment: bigger explosions in the movies, more violent television programs, saltier meals and bigger wines. The special effects have obliterated the plot.
Why is big now considered better? Have we all turned into shock jocks when it comes to wine? Are even the grand old wines in danger of becoming caricatures of themselves, the way aging comics awkwardly insert hip lingo into their routines? These are all questions I ponder as I move on to the next table. It groans under the weight of seventy-two Chilean cabernets, making me wonder whether there should be breathalyzers at wine tastings.
It strikes me that we’ve confused power with concentration, strength with quality. That’s why some drinkers now believe that a wine can’t possibly be “serious” without big body and high alcohol, just as some people believe that a novel of fewer than 200 pages can’t be great literature.
Most of us don’t want to eat food that’s so hot that it hurts or a dish with just one dominant flavor. So why do we want our wine to taste that way? Big wine obliterates the taste of whatever it accompanies, much like dousing everything you eat with ketchup or salt. “These wines don’t complement food,” Californian vintner Paul Ridge observes. “Except maybe wild boar, preferably still alive.”
In 2002, Australian scientists H. Guth and A. Sies proved that when the alcohol gets high enough it obscures wine’s character. The study focused on gewürztraminers and Bordeaux reds, and found that excessive alcohol covers the flavor compounds that distinguish wines. Most tasters in the study couldn’t identify the wine type.
It’s not that I won’t drink alcoholic wines, but sparingly, just as I don’t eat chocolate cake for dessert every night. Acidity alone gives us that refreshing sensation, cleansing the palate so that each bite of food approaches the deliciousness of the first one. That’s great dining: not quick satiety, but prolonged pleasure.
Acidity is also the primary element that enables wines to age. Hence the debate about whether some New World chardonnays and cabernets can age well because they often don’t have enough acidity to balance their other components. I’ve tasted some from the best vineyards in California, Australia and Chile, and after just five years, they seem faded.
Californian oenologist George Vierra divides wines into “social wines,” consumed on their own and “table wines,” which are partners for food. I, too, like different styles of wine for different purposes. For an aperitif, I prefer a richer, rounder style that doesn’t make me pucker. Alcohol of about 13 percent is perfect because I’m asking my wine to be a cocktail. With food, I want the wine to be more acidic, less alcoholic so I can taste the flavors in the dish. It’s like the difference between attending a concert and putting on some music as background while I’m working.
At the tasting, I’m sampling my forty-seventh Chilean cabernet. A crimson flower blooms inside my mouth, its fiery tendrils licking at the back of my throat. I think my lips are starting to peel off. I’ve definitely lost a layer of enamel from my teeth: bathing them in acidity for five hours will do that. For the drive home, I’m not calling a cab, I’m calling an ambulance.
This physical anguish gets me thinking about the health implications of high-alcohol wine. The recommended daily maximum consumption is three to four units of alcohol for men and two to three for women. A “unit” of alcohol is eight milligrams or a five-ounce glass of a modest 9 percent wine.
When the wine’s alcohol content creeps up, it’s more difficult to stick to those guidelines. That’s especially true if you use the large glasses that are best for smelling wine: a five-once pour looks stingy. At 12.5 percent alcohol, men can drink 1.25 glasses; women 0.93 glasses. And at just 15 percent, men reach their daily intake with just over a glass and women with a measly three-quarters of a glass.
To make matters more confusing, you can’t always trust the alcohol level printed on the bottle. For example, American wines use the honor system when reporting alcohol levels, mainly because labels must be approved by Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) and printed before the final alcoholic content of the wine is known, usually at bottling. So the BATF allows winemakers some leeway. For wines of less than 14 percent alcohol, producers are allowed to indicate a level that’s up to 1.5 percent higher or lower than the actual figure. A wine labeled as 12.5 percent, for example, could actually have as little as 11 percent or as much as 14. For wines of 14 percent and higher, there’s only a one percent tolerance upwards, so a wine labeled 15 percent might really be 16 percent.
There’s also a tax incentive for claiming a lower alcohol level. Wineries pay $1.07 a gallon in federal excise tax for wines under 14.1 percent; $1.57 for ones between 14.1 and 21 percent and $3.15 for those in the range of 21.1 and 24 percent. (Makers of sparkling wine, viewed as a premium product, pay $3.40 a gallon, regardless of the alcohol level.) So there’s a practical reason why big wines just happen to clock in at exactly 14 percent.
So are high-alcohol wines here to stay? I don’t see their popularity diminishing anytime soon. Today’s Coca Cola generation of young adults is looking for sweet, robust drinks, in exactly the same way that the 1950s and 1960s generation got their kicks from cocktails. And what about the burgeoning markets in China, Brazil and India: how will their taste affect the worldwide style of wine? Might they have a sweet tooth like the Japanese drinkers in the 1990s who added Coke to their Château Pétrus?
What can we do? I’m no neo-prohibitionist, but I would like to see the alcohol content given a more prominent place on front labels and in a font that’s larger than mice type. I’d also like to see alcohol levels noted on restaurant wine lists. In fact, I’ve started asking servers about it when ordering. Although I don’t advocate cigarette-style health warnings, I do believe that we all have a right to know what we’re drinking and to be more aware of its impact on our health and our senses.
By this time, I’ve crawled across this desert of bottles to the end of the tasting. I remember all the times I’ve tried to convince friends that tasting wine is hard work. An amused smile is usually the response, or they just laugh outright. I wish they could see me now. My cheeks glow like red-hot metal; my mouth is a fire-blackened building. As I leave the wine store for the chilly October evening, a light drizzle lifts the heat off my skin. Nothing so small has ever felt so good. That’s the pleasure of wine too: it refreshes us gently, drop by drop.
In the show notes, you’ll find the full transcript, how you can join me in a free online wine and food pairing class, where you can find me on Instagram, Facebook and YouTube live video every Wednesday at 7 pm, that’s all in the show notes at nataliemaclean.com/114.
If you’re interested in my hosting a wine and cheese or chocolate tasting for your group, please email me at email@example.com. You’ll also find my contact in the show notes.
You won’t want to miss next week when I’ll be chatting with Jane Anson, the world’s foremost authority on Bordeaux wine. She’s the author of the newly published Inside Bordeaux, which has received multiple glowing reviews and has been named best book of the year by several newspapers — not just best wine book, best book because it’s so good. And you’ll have a chance to win a personally signed copy of it. Details next week.
Jane is also the author of The Club of Nine, Angélus, Bordeaux Legends, a history of the 1855 First Growth wines, as well as co-author or translator of over a dozen wine and travel books. She’s Bordeaux correspondent and columnist for Decanter magazine and has won several awards for her writing. You’re going to learn so much about what’s happening in Bordeaux right now, where the best values and vintages are plus some surprising and colourful stories about the region’s history.
In the meantime, if you missed episode 50, go back and take a listen. I chat more about pairing wine with chocolate. I’ll share a short clip with you now to whet your appetite.
If you liked this episode, please tell one friend about it this week, especially someone you know who’d be interested in the tips I shared.
Thank-you for taking the time to join me here. I hope something great is in your glass this week, perhaps zesty, refreshing, low-alcohol pinot noir or knock yourself out with a high octane red!