Discussion: Is The Alcohol Level A Wine Quality Issue?


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The following is a discussion I started on Linkedin groups “International Sommelier Guild,” “National Restaurant Association” and “Wine Business Network.” The discussion revolves around efforts to produce naturally or by other means wines of lower alcohol percentage and the advantages or disadvantages. The focus is on personal experience of wine drinkers and the attitude toward specific wines based on the alcohol. The names of commenters have been abbreviated and all responses presented chronologically regardless of which group.
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Is the alcohol level really an issue in the wine quality?

I personally love lower alcohol wines because I can keep drinking them without any side effects. But is the alcohol really that important an issue? French see a niche for low alcohol wines https://winebycush.wordpress.com/2009/06/06/french-export-low-alcohol-wines/ Do you suppose this may become a trend in a wine market overwhelmed with overproduction? Remember how Lambrusco won America over once with its simple fizzy 8.5% wine?

Posted 21 days ago | Delete discussion
Gary M.

I find that alcohol levels vary greatly with each wine I try. The general range is thirteen percent to fifteen percent. According to some wine makers the higher alcohol content sometimes works in concert with the tannins to round off the edges and bump up the fruit on the palate. I think that this works and is fairly prominent in a recent wine I tasted from the Adelaide Plains in Southern Australia… Raw Power Shiraz for example ( http://www.rawpowerwine.com/label.htm ) is a wine with higher alcohol content (14.9%) and it is truly a good wine for the weekend barbecue. Lots of fruit, smoky chocolate and very food friendly. A terrific value.

Yes the alcohol content is higher than one would want, but drink slower and savor each sip. At this price, you can smile all the way to the bank!

Posted 18 days ago | Reply Privately

Kooshyar D.

That is a great example but is sort of a classic. Shiraz will usually have alc in that neighborhood and bbq is a great match to blend the alcohol in there. Would you say folks will be as likely to have that Shiraz as an aperitif wine? That is how fruity wines are consumed here in California. People drink them by the glass for that great fruit and chocolate without food having conversations and when they get out of the chair it hits them. What would you recommend to make them drink the Shiraz and come back to the bar or restaurant? I am out of ideas.

Posted 17 days ago | Delete comment

Eric J.

Alcohol was really only an issue during the college years when people would seek out higher contents as a point of machismo (for beer and liquor, becuase there wasn’t much wine consumed then). At this point I am not too worried about the side effects, and wine can be well made regardless of alcohol content…Moscato d’Asti at 5.5% can be very enjoyable, as well as a low alcohol Lambrusco or Riesling.

Regarding the article, de-alcoholization makes sense if consumers demand it, but in a traditional wine culture we shouldn’t be surprised that there would be resistance. The caveat is that those who refuse to change risk being left behind as consumer behavior and wine tastes change.

Posted 20 days ago | Reply Privately

Stephen P.

perhaps it is a quality issue, because high alcohol comes from very ripe grapes which in turn has implications for aroma, body, flavor and color.

I can hardly drink an Amarone, for example, or an Amador County Zin with 15% or more alcohol. I call these wines “shoe polish” for their density and extraction.

Give me a nice Moscato any day. Sadly, although I have had some delicious Lambruscos (Lambrusci?) consumers continue to associate the name with cheap fizzy stuff and won’t buy it. Would be a perfect wine for summer…!

Posted 21 days ago | Reply Privately

Martin V.

To me it is not really an indication of quality, but an indication of place. The more sun, the higher the must weight and ,ergo, the higher the alcohol level.There seems to be a tendency to lower alcohol wines and some wineries have started reducing the alcohol content of their wines by using the spinning cone technique. I am not a proponent of manipulating the wine, as it always will result in a product of lesser quality in my opinion.There are many options to choose wines from areas where the wines automatically yield lower alcohol content. I agree with Mr.Plunkett about the Lambrusco- some excellent products are available which do not taste like grape juice with alcohol.

Posted 21 days ago | Reply Privately

Kooshyar D.

Alcohol is one of the four (alcohol, acid, tannin, and fruit) necessities for the structure of the wine to age. That makes it an integral part of the wine but besides aging how much does it have to do with quality is the question for me. Low alcohol can be a problem for the wine and some wines i.e. Amarone can actually point to the alcohol as a strength but Zin is out of control and no fool would boast its alcohol. I think high alcohol goes beyond that however. If alcohol is high, the acid is low which affects aging but also makes the wine a poor candidate for matching with food. If the spinning cone technique is used and the inherent alcohol is lowered, what becomes of the acid? I assume the acid stays low as was before the technique. The wine may be more palatable now but is the wine of higher quality if it was made with low alcohol originally? I like to know more. Many sommeliers (at least in SF) are hostile to California wine because of the high alcohol issue and I think the topic is worth exploring.

Posted 20 days ago | Delete comment

Lawrence F.

I’d agree that high alcohol is a problem when the wine isn’t balanced against the other important characterstics — obviously acidity and tannins. I picked up a $10 bottle of Ipsus the other day at Trader Joe’s, from the previously unknown (to me) Passito della Pantelleria DOCG. It was in the sweet wine section, which my wife is partial to, so we thought why not. It’s 15% alcohol and tasted like someone mixed Everclear and grape concentrate. Totally unbalanced, but worth trying just for the experience.

I can see what they were aiming for — something like a Recioto, especially given the name of the DOCG — but they missed the mark. On the other hand, I’ve got a nice selection of 10 year tawny ports that are also pushing 15% alcohol and they were just great. American consumers like strong, big bodied, full alcohol wines, but those of us willing to try a lower alcohol can be rewarded with a nice treat that doesn’t get you too wasted.

Posted 20 days ago | Reply Privately

Kooshyar D.

I agree with both points. And the American consumers do like the reds fruity and high in alcohol while the whites are served too cold. However, here in SF the local sommeliers are fairly hostile to high alcohol wines!!! Traditionally, this area is one of the largest sales markets for California fine (expensive) wines and the above trends had held strong. However, the market has changed greatly. Nowadays, almost any restaurant has a sommelier (with training or self-trained) and the more they have to compete with each other on the floor and in the media, the pickier they get. High alcohol is a huge no-no because it means lower acid which is food friendly. The rational is not as important as the trends: Biodynamic, sustainable, green, Earth-friendly, and low alcohol. But is it a bond fide quality issue or just a local fad I keep pondering.

Posted 19 days ago | Delete comment

Carolyn M.

I think that the issue is not so much high alcohol but lack of balance in a wine that many people object to in a wine. I think that great wines and winemaking are all about finding that balance

between alcohol and acid, oak and ripenss with as little manipulation as possible.

Posted 17 days ago | Reply Privately

Florent G.

Wine grower know that to increase the quality of a wine (tannin, polyphenols, structure) we’ve got to increase the leaves surface and to reduce the number of grapes per stoke (That’s what we call green harvest). It means we automatically increase the quantity of sugar (alcohol) and over 14° vinification is more and more difficult. That’s the reason why you can find bad wines over 14°.
But I agree with Carolyn, it’s a matter of balance, and you shouldn’t feel alcohol in a good wine.
But balance is not the same for everyone and it’s hard to make rules with wine tasting.

Posted 17 days ago | Reply Privately

Sandra R.

Quality? No, no, no! Lower alcohol wines can be made with just as good of quality as higher — if not better quality. Quality is subjective to a degree. Most consumers world-wide prefer lower alcohol, and higher residual sugar wines. It is the wine industry (of which I am a part) and the Robert Parker’s of the world that have intimidated the consumer into the higher alcohol “bigger” wines as more desirable. Not true! Lots of research proves it.

Posted 17 days ago | Reply Privately

Kooshyar D.

Thank you Sandra. That is one of the best points I got so far. You are saying wine evaluators created a trend (bias) toward whatever they like and we have to fight over our taste versus their decrees. That is a great point to know. I think I have to point something out. Parker as far as I remember does not like “fruit bombs” as we call them here in California. When it is warm, as in California, the grapes can grow to have lots of sugar (and they like them riper here) which also means more and more fruit. That sugar becomes alcohol. Some of Parker’s famous picks are in that category for sure but I think he dislikes green grass Cabs and our “fruit bombs.” But your point is great. Thank you

Posted 17 days ago | Delete comment

Ed. T

“Quality” probably needs to be defined further. In some areas of the world, it is strictly defined in order to achieve certain AOC or other designations. But, as Sandra pointed out, elsewhere, it is subjective and probably is defined by the consumer, the critic, the winegrower, or the winemaker which may not necessarily align. To me, I first thought of balance as my answer to this question as Florent described above as well as the aging needs you, Kooshyar, pointed out. Big alcohol, to me, without fruit, flavor and acid to balance it out means lesser quality to me — I, as a consumer would not like it. The same goes for lower end of the spectrum too. So, what do mean by quality exactly?

Posted 17 days ago | Reply Privately

Kooshyar D.

I am not sure I know what quality is. The term is defined beyond its dictionary meaning by many to fit their ends. High alcohol in wine is deemed a big issue by many sommeliers and wine directors (with training based on Old World preferences) and those who reject the high alcohol wine ( fruit or not) point to alcohol as a problem lowering the quality of wine. The question of what is really a “quality” issue is what is on hand. I don’t have the answer because it is subjective as everyone so far has stated.

Posted 17 days ago | Delete comment

Ian J.

Your question needs to be defined better. Ed is correct that in certain cases alcohol is a quality issue based on requirements for a given appellation. This can also be applied to sugar in the grapes at harvest as this is a way of measuring potential alcohol in a wine. The German quality system is based entirely upon this, so alcohol again is an indication of quality in this case. Your question needs to also specifically include or exclude fortification as this extends the complexity of the question. Let’s face it there are fortified wines at 19% alc. at both ends of the quality spectrum. And alcohol plays no part in the quality of the wine. If you are talking about dry wines only, then it is a matter of balance. If you are looking for a particular answer that supports the production of low alcohol wines that are dry then I think we all know the answer to that. Don’t we?

Posted 16 days ago | Reply Privately

Kooshyar d.

Thank you Ian. Unfortunatley, a lot of times when attempting to figure something out, the question can be ambiguous itself. I do think the article included with the blog post I mentioned does narrow it down to specific wine categories. Fortified wines originally and historically were fortified so they can last the trip on the ship to the destination markets. They became a style and lowering the alcohol will change the style so I think that is appreciated by drinking 2oz to 3oz at a time versus 5oz to 6oz for the wines we are looking at here. Also, I am not an expert on German wine system but know enough about it to point a couple of things out: 1. naming the classification system after quality “Qualitat” does not mean the system is based on quality. The Italian DOC and DOCG systems regulate many things but are NO guarantee of quality. Germany is too far North and thus less sun. This means less time for grapes to ripen before harvest and less sugar. They have almost no RED wines because of this and the sugar amount is treasured but I don’t think automatically translates into quality by being higher or lower. Austria was the only country that used the German system and they abandoned it in favor of a French style system a few years back. There is nothing wrong with the system and as you mentioned it moves in the right direction of appreciating whatever adds quality to the wine but I don’t think it goes far enough to make alcohol level an indicator of quality.

Posted 16 days ago | Delete comment

Ian J.

Kooshyar. You are absolutely right about the German system. When a student is asked in a structured blind tasting to comment on quality, what the examiner is looking for are both the appellation as it relates to “quality” and a thorough description of the empirical quality as perceived by the taster. To confuse the subject of quality further, it is most certainly subjective between distinct taster groups. A novice taster may have a high quality opinion of a commercial quality wine, whereas an experienced taster is able to deduce it’s commercial quality. Appellation systems unfortunately do not absolutely define quality. They are merely a guide to quality under the best circumstances.
Alcohol is sometimes indicative of quality while at others it is not. Seeking an absolute answer in the world of wine is not very often fruitful. I guess that’s why it’s so interesting.

Posted 13 days ago | Reply Privately

Mark G.

As others have already put, I would agree that the alcohol content is most definitely a quality issue. Clearly there is an expectation on the part of the customer that it is wine so it must have alcohol, and it should be balanced with other flavours – hence quality expectation. And it is most definitely subjective. From a technical point of view, there’s some good science behind the knowledge that increasing alcohol content does suppress the activity of some aroma and flavour compounds in wine, particularly in aromatic varieties. On the vineyard side, it is often believed that flavours increase with the sugars during ripening – hence sometimes grapes are left on the vine longer to try to get more flavour. But this is not always the case and can affected by many factors. Sometimes the end result can be badly unbalanced wines with extremely high levels of alcohol.
Technicalities aside, personally, I prefer to drink wines with lower alcohol, but I still want good flavour – that’s my quality expectation.

Mark Gishen, Gishen Consulting.

Posted 12 days ago | Reply Privately

Kooshyar d.

I agree with last two comments fully and think alcohol definitely “relates” to quality systematically but whether or not can be viewed as a measure of quality I am still out there.

Posted 10 days ago | Delete comment

Kate L.

When thinking about high alcohol levels in wine, it’s important to consider the effects of climate change on wines from most major growing regions. Pancho Campo MW, has done a ton on research on this:

http://www.thewineacademy.com/web/eng/noticia01.php?id=175

I too prefer lower alcohol wine for the most part, though I am not overly sensitive to alcohol on the palate (since drink bourbon straight, from time to time!). I just prefer a light, refreshing wine most of the time and that usually is accompanied by low alcohol.

Trend or consequence?

Posted 7 days ago | Reply Privately

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