Is High Alcohol a Wine Fault or Freedom of Liquid Expression?

Bottle clusterContinued from Part 4 of High Alcohol Wine

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.

(Here are my top reviews of wines with 18% alcohol or higher. Fortified wines like port start at 19-20%.)

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 carafe of red wine smallAlcohol, 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 how exactly do vintners de-alcoholize their wine? Two of the most popular methods are reverse osmosis and the spinning cone along with the basic approach of just diluting with water.

The latter process is known as “watering back” the wine—or colloquially, as adding “Jesus units” in a reverse form of the miracle of Cana. It’s illegal in most regions. The industry permits it only in certain cases, such as to help a wine that’s become “stuck” during fermentation.

The spinning cone method takes advantage of wine’s low boiling point in a vacuum to remove all but 4 percent of the alcohol. It also strips the wine’s flavor as it passes through a stainless steel cylinder.

The flavor is then added back to the wine and because the process uses lower temperatures than other distillation methods, the wine’s fresh flavors are preserved.

Most wineries use the spinning cone or reverse osmosis methods on only a small portion of the wine that’s blended back into the main lot. Large producers tend to favor the cone because it’s more efficient and cheaper for big batches; small wineries prefer reverse osmosis because it’s gentler and uses compact, mobile equipment.

Wines labeled with the prestigious designation “estate bottled” can’t leave the winery before bottling, so this process must be done on the premises.

Reverse osmosis works by running wine through a tight filter, which strains out both water and alcohol from the wine. The alcohol is then distilled from the water and that water is added back to the wine, flavor and all.

One of the leading proponents of this technology is Clark Smith. His Californian company Vinovation de-alcoholizes more than half of the wine made on the North Coast.

Bottle and glass of red wineSmith believes that there’s a “sweet spot” for every wine, where it tastes best. His “de-alc’d” wines keep their rich fruit flavours and their mouthfeel without the palate-whacking punch of high alcohol.

Vinovation already has more than 1,200 winery clients, and Smith believes that de-alcoholization will become an accepted practice. This hasn’t happened yet and most of his clients insist on anonymity, fearing consumers will think that manipulating wine strips its character.

Others scoff at this notion, observing that all wine is manipulated to some degree. From the act of choosing where and how to plant the vines to watering, trellising and managing their canopy—all is human intervention and it touches every part of the winemaking process. It’s a purist ideal that wine will express its terroir with no human help.

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.



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