As a purveyor of red wines that inevitably average out at just under 14.5% alcohol I’ve been at the receiving end of a growing number of (negative) comments about high alcohol. I wouldn’t say that I feel yet like the vinous equivalent of the super-sized Big Mac, fries and soda, but I am feeling a bit sensitive about the issue.
Climate change aside, I can understand how the phenomenon of high alcohol levels came about. Simply put, winemakers found that it was easier to sell flavourful wines made from fully-ripe fruit. Some of this fruit was probably left ‘hanging’ for longer than was absolutely necessary, with the result that wines got bigger and bigger.
However, we don’t all make wine in the Mosel. In some parts of the world (not only the Southern Hemisphere!) alcohol levels in the vicinity of 14% are the natural level. In this region an equilibrium point of ripeness has been reached. Depending upon the quality of fruit that’s been harvested the wine will be in balance. Simply put, there is enough fruit extract, acid and tannin to balance the elevated level of alcohol. The wine is undeniably fuller-bodied, but it is a faithful representation of the conditions under which it was grown. Surely this is a feature that should be praised?
It seems to me that the alcohol argument has become somewhat hyped, and so is lacking in logic. Let’s take the case of someone drinking two 125ml glasses of a 14.5% wine. If that person were to switch to a 13.5% wine they could increase their consumption by all of 18.5ml. That’s a little more than three teaspoons.
Or, doing the maths slightly differently, you would have to drink 13 glasses (each 125ml) of 13.5% wine before earning yourself an extra glass. Most people I know would not be in any condition to drink that 14th glass.
There is an interchange in The Devil Wears Prada where one of the fashionistas says: “Four is the new six.” Nowhere in the alcohol lobby is there any suggestion of the ideal level of alcohol. If 13.5% is currently considered acceptable, how long is it before 13% becomes the new 13.5%? And so on.
I’m not suggesting that all wines of 14% alcohol are in balance. Far from it; but then I’ve even had 12% wines that have been out of balance.
The bigger issue as far as alcohol is concerned is the temperature at which the wine is served. In my view most red wines should be served at about 16°C and service above 18°C should be disallowed. Red wines change personality completely when they are served too warm.
One of the trademarks of our chosen beverage is that our experience of it is so subjective. There is no empirical measurement of a wine’s quality. One of its few absolutes (excuse the pun) is the percentage of alcohol it contains. As one of the few undeniable facts relating to any particular bottle it is therefore a prime candidate for getting latched onto.
This brings to mind my observation of a certain style of sports commentary that employs statistics at every turn. These are important, and can explain why a team or individual is not getting the results they’re hoping for. Telling us what percentage of fairways a golfer has hit is relevant, but not to the exclusion of pointing out to the viewers at home what adjustment to either grip or swing is necessary to rectify the problem.
Alcohol per se is not the problem, but it would be helpful to guide wine drinkers in picking well-balanced wines, and in suggesting ideal serving temperatures.
I am of the opinion that there are more examples of wines that have become unbalanced due to over-wooding than there are wines that are unbalanced as a result of over-ripe fruit. Here again we are in subjective, non-empirical territory. At the end of the day it comes down to the style of wine favoured by the winemaker.
But that is just subjectivity. If we stick to facts the average wine drinker’s consumption is only marginally affected by switching to wine at 13.5%.