Consumers are becoming more aware of the alcohol level in wine and how it impacts what is in the glass. Here are a few things you should know about alcohol levels:
Alcohol is perceived on the nose and palate as "heat," or, as some wine professionals call it, "burn." If you perceive alcohol first in the nose, or bouquet, then the wine is running "too hot."
Alcohol should never be something that stands out on any level in wine consumption. Alcohol should be so well integrated with the other flavor components that it adds to the overall complexity of the wine, not detracts from it. This is true in all wines, including dessert and dry aperitif. Wines in which alcohol is quickly perceived either in the nose or on the palate are out of balance. The key to all great winemaking is a clear sense of balance, or harmony, not only when it's just released but after it's aged as well.
Weather has an overwhelming influence on alcohol level in wine. Generally, the hotter the growing season, the more the alcohol level will rise. Warm days and cool nights are perfect in achieving balance in red, white and rosé wine.
Another influence is "hang time" — how long a winemaker allows the grapes to remain unharvested beyond what's considered a normal amount of time. The longer the grapes hang, the higher the sugar and alcohol content. In wines such as Amarone, from the Veneto region in Italy, dried grapes are introduced to fermenting grapes, causing a massive concentration of flavors and increased alcohol levels. This practice is rare, but the weight and intensity of these wines are quite something to experience.
I should mention the more-is-better school of winemaking. The adherents of this philosophy argue that there is really nothing wrong with high alcohol in wine, as long as the concentration of other variables, such as wood and fruit, keep in line with the alcohol. If a wine is massive in fruit and oak, for example, high alcohol should fall right in line with the extracted flavors.
Zinfandel lovers, especially those who like the more concentrated, high-alcohol offerings — such as Amador, Lodi and Paso Robles releases — often cite the "more is better" doctrine while drinking the 15-percent-plus-alcohol monsters. Yes, there is a place for these wines, I suspect, but not on my table. For the most part, and I have gone around and around with these folks, there is almost no nuance in these wines and the dollar is spent on alcohol and fruit rush. Also, what cuisine could one pair with wines exhibiting such high alcohol, wood and fruit? It has been my belief that wine should almost always be accompanied by cuisine. Over 14.9-percent alcohol wines are a problem with cuisine and will continue to be so.
Sadly, I think with the continuation of global warming, we will see alcohol levels rising. This is going to be the next challenge for winemakers as well as consumers.
Lorn Razzano is former owner of the Wine Cellar in Ashland and still works there part time. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.