Alcohol in wines – a look at the ‘Bigger Picture’

Call them legs or tears, alcohol level in wine always invites scrutiny

Among many hotly debated issues in the wine world today, including some contentious ones, alcohol level in wines is one which attracts a lot of scrutiny from opinion makers as well as consumers. A lot of pundits have expressed their dismay over increasing alcohol potency in modern-day wines and educated us on the likely fallout of this trend. As alcohol abuse increases, this issue is likely to be a burning topic in the wine world for a long time to come.

But do we need to press the panic button as yet? And more importantly, don’t we need to adopt a more balanced approach when discussing the complex subject? The wine media is awash with one-sided stories about what is thought to be a ‘negative trend’ in our industry, but this post is an attempt to look at the larger perspective affecting alcohol content in wines.

To start with, why is this debate important for the wine industry and why does it arouse passions? In my view, there are three reasons:

  1. Serious health concerns related to alcohol abuse.
  2. One of wine’s uniqueness lies in its compatibility with food but wines with high alcohol are hard to pair with many dishes, especially those with hot spices. The opposite is also true – a very light wine may not be compatible to many cuisines owing to their richness. 
  3. Balance, which is probably the single most vital factor in deciding a wine’s quality, is often compromised when alcohol level is disproportionately high.

All the points above are self-explanatory and intimate to the subject. They are the prime reasons why most influencers of our industry raise concerns about this trend, and rightly so. But apart from genuine concerns, we also often come across vibes that ‘sound right’ and which a lot of wine consumers ‘like to hear’. In other words, is there an element of political correctness whenever this topic is discussed? Let’s find out.

A few days ago, Robert Joseph, a credible voice of the wine world, tweeted the following:

RJ Tweet1

The story in question raised some interesting points which indicated that consumers prefer wines with high alcohol. To be fair in the context of this article it is important to mention here that the study was conducted involving a very limited sample size of participants from a tiny geographical area, using just one type of wine. So, its accuracy can be questioned, but since we are not here in judgement of the veracity of the research, I will limit myself to discussing some relevant facts in support of the ‘balanced approach’ I mentioned earlier.

Some of the world’s most iconic wines boast of high alcoholic strength

This is not the first time such studies have come up in the public domain. In fact a lot has been written about the well-established fact that alcohol level in wines is steadily on the rise. What could be the reason? Well, many theories have come forth, like global warming, effect of wine critics who tend to prefer such wines, evolved vineyard management, etc. Whatever the reason(s), let’s be clear that like every other economic principle, this phenomenon is also driven my market demand. Why would a certain trend find solid traction in world trade if it was not popular? Surely not because people want to get drunk fast!

Wine’s unique identity has never been due to low alcohol, although in the contemporary trade there exists a category of such wines, aimed at the health and calorie conscious. But when was the last time we heard of a brand which created ripples by marketing its low-alcohol content? I haven’t come across one and the only reason I could link this to is the important role played by alcohol in influencing a wine’s charatcter. Apart from being a major factor in deciding the body of wine, it also plays an important role in the wine’s overall texture, weight and a degree of sweetness on the palate.

Moreover, a valid concern about low alcohol in wines is also related to the actual production methods. The two prevalent ways of achieving low alcohol in wines are either by harvesting the grapes early, or at optimum ripeness but the alcohol content later lowered artificially in the winery. In both the cases the quality of wine can be adversely affected:

  1. Early harvesting ==> In warm climates where phenolic ripeness lags behind sugar ripeness, early harvesting adversely affects both the processes. In simple terms, along with less sugar and more acid, the other vital components like tannins, anthocyanins and flavouring compounds also remain unripe in such grapes. Absence of these vital building blocks is best avoided in finished wines, otherwise it often results in what is termed by experts as ‘badly made wine’ with prevalence of green and unripe characters. In short, to achieve low-alcohol naturally in moderately warm to warm climates, the trade-off can be highly undesirable for the sensory and taste profile of the wine.
  2. Artificial reduction of alcohol ==> In this case, full ripeness is achieved in the vineyard to ensure optimum physiological ripeness, along with sugar ripeness, and then the alcohol is reduced by employing various techniques. These range from as drastic a measure as ‘watering down’ in which the grape must is diluted with water to bring the sugar level down (and hence low alcohol), to more advanced techniques like reverse osmosis and fast spinning. While the pros and cons of these methods are yet to be scientifically established, on the ground studies have established that the quality of wine suffers immensely as these involve exposing the wine and its sensitive components to severe battering (literally).
Vineyard mgmnt
Better vineyard management is the way forward in keeping alcohol strength in check

Another way, which in my view is the best possible alternative, to keep alcohol levels in check in wines is through highly advanced vineyard management where the aim is to control the grape ripening process and reduce their ‘hang time’, but still achieve the right amount of sugar, acids, tannin, colour, aroma and other organic compounds. Till the time the larger wine world does not master and practice this art, it is of little use to discuss it in the context of this article.

It is perfectly okay for wines to be dismissed as ‘unbalanced’ due to high alcohol which is overpowering and disproportionate to other components, in addition to being nonconforming to its style. But otherwise, whenever a wine’s quality is simply measured on its alcohol content, there lies a risk of erroneous judgement about the wine’s quality.

In the end what matters is WHAT YOU LIKE

We all have our unique taste preferences and should always remain loyal to our taste buds irrespective of what critics or the wine media tell us. One should not be defensive about his/her liking of high alcohol wines nor be boastful about their refined palates which only prefer wines below 12.5%. Those who fall in the first category – why not limit your consumption rather than suppressing your sensory pleasures? As Robert Joseph summed it up at the end of our Twitter interaction:

RJ Tweet2

Here’s what I believe – if you are really after low-alcohol wines, go for the ones which are marketed as such or opt for those which have traditionally been known to be ‘light’. A word of caution here – if you like your wine bone dry, I’m afraid you will restrict yourself to wines from limited geographical areas as well as styles, mostly produced in cool-climate regions. Here’s a list of table wines you can try which have low alcoholic strength:

Whites: Sweeter style German Rieslings, Pinot Grigio from cool-climate Italian regions like Trentino, Loire Chenins & Sauvignon Blancs, Albarino from Spain, Vinho Verde from Portugal, light & fizzy Muscats (like Moscato d’Asti) and cool-climate New World Rieslings

Reds: Beaujolais & most Gamays, Cabernet Franc from Loire, light Italian reds like Lambrusco and Brachetto

Rosés: ‘Blush’ variants produced in California, Mateus, Loire Rosés plus many more produced around the world to be enjoyed chilled and young.

For those, who are not overly and unjustifiably pedantic about alcohol levels, here is a list of table wines you can enjoy, albeit in moderation 🙂 :

Whites: Rich & voluptuous styles of Chardonnay (almost the entire New World produces such styles), some South African Chenins

Reds: Amarone, some Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Grenache and Grenache based blends, Californian Zinfandel, South Australian Shiraz, some Right-Bank Bordeaux (big, Merlot-based wines), rich Californian Cabernet & blends (Meritage) etc.

Rosés: Southern Rhone Grenache based wines like Tavel, plus many more produced in countries like Spain, Argentina and South Africa.




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