How much is too much alcohol? A volatile question in the wine world these days as it is now quite common to see wines in excess of 15 percent alcohol. Before I address this question and (spoiler alert) ultimately don’t answer, let’s consider the four things that CH3CH2OH brings to a wine.
A byproduct of yeast fermentation, ethyl alcohol brings weight or what’s known as body to a wine. There is no easier way to recognize the importance of body than tasting a non-alcoholic wine. Without the alcohol, these wines are more than just thin, they simply lack an innate wine quality that makes them feel somehow wrong in our mouths.
As a taste, we perceive alcohol as sweet.
Often described as a flavor, but it really is a sensation, alcohol creates a burning hot feeling on our palates.
In moderation, alcohol consumption brightens our spirits.
Those are the benefits of alcohol in wine, but some folks believe a line has been crossed with the growing amount of alcohol in the bottle. There are consumers, winemakers and wine writers out there who are pretty riled up about the rising tide of alcohol. And I have to admit on a personal level, I’m generally not crazy about high-alcohol wines. That’s not to say I absolutely refuse to drink or review 15-percent-plus wines. Why? Because some of these wines are amazing, lovely and desirable.
Back in 2007, Randy Dunn, the winemaker for Dunn Vineyards, wrote me and several dozen wine commentators. In his 400-word letter, he accused the wine press of leading “the score-chasing winemakers/owners up the alcohol curve” and politely asked us to lead them back down.
Dunn, who still is quite vocal in his crusade to lower alcohol levels, made excellent points in his letter. Higher alcohol wines are tough to pair food with; they make it easy to breeze past moderate-consumption levels; and the massive weight, excessively sweet and exceedingly hot qualities brought on by elevated alcohol levels obscure a wine’s sense of place.
Why am I dredging all this up now? I am writing this column on the patio of the Geyserville Inn in Sonoma County’s Alexander Valley, a winding, 39-mile drive from Dunn’s front door. In the past 2 1/2 days, I learned a lot about the history and winemaking here and I tasted several dozen cabernet sauvignons as a part of the Alexander Valley Winegrower’s Cabernet Academy.
With only a few exceptions, all the wines were over 14 percent alcohol. If I were in lockstep with Dunn (and writers who refuse to review wines this high in alcohol), I ought to be quiet about these wines. But, I can’t. Because a number of these wines were phenomenal.
My favorites: 2009 Stonestreet, Rockfall ($75); 2008 Rodney Strong, Rockaway ($75); Munselle Vineyards, Coyote Crest ($65); Pech Merle, Garden Creek ($39) and Wattle Creek, Estate ($42). The Pech Merle had the least alcohol of the five, coming in at 13.8 percent. The Rodney Strong tipped the scales at 15.5 percent, making it the highest. But I didn’t have an upbeat view of these wines because the alcohol (or lack of alcohol), I found them to be flavorful, exciting, interesting and, most of all, balanced.
Balance is the one word that is too often left out of this alcohol debate. If you taste a wine and the first thing you talk about is its heat, sweetness and massiveness, then that wine is out of balance and should be judged accordingly. The same can be said for unbalanced measures of acidity, tannins and other components of a wine. If you get delectable combinations of cocoa powder, toffee, bright black cherry, subtle smokiness, black licorice and notes of bell pepper (all positive qualities of a cabernet in my book), then we’re looking at quality, no? And we can assume that all the alcohol did was play its role without stealing the spotlight.
It is not my place to tell a winemaker how to make his or her wine. It is my place to be fair and as unbiased as possible in intractably subjective world of wine evaluation.
Gil Kulers is a certified wine educator and a consultant for a metro-Atlanta wine shop. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Note: Wines are rated on a scale ranging up from Thumbs Down, One Thumb Mostly Up, One Thumb Up, Two Thumbs Up, Two Thumbs Way Up and Golden Thumb Award. Prices are suggested retail prices as provided by the winery, one of its agents, a local distributor or retailer.
— Gil Kulers, AJC Drink blog