What IS High Alcohol In Wine?

If you’re a part of the wine industry, or if you follow it, it’s hard to get away from the debate; the alcohol level debate. Everywhere you turn, it’s a dominating topic of conversation.

A recent example is a column (Decanter Magazine, September 2011) by the famed English wine writer Oz Clarke, which was summed up by Decanter’s own Adam Lechmere as follows:

There is no style revolution in California: low acid, velvet tannins and high alcohol is what Americans want from their wine and Californian winemakers will continue to feed that need.

There was, predictably, a whole host of responses to the article (and to Mr. Lechmere’s summary!), including a notable offering from Steve Heimoff (Wine Enthusiast), who wrote the following:

I’ve been saying it for years: this supposed “trend” toward lower alcohol wine is largely a fiction invented and perpetuated by writers who (a) wish it were true and (b) need something sexy to write about in their columns and on their blogs.

All of which got me thinking of an admittedly tangential, but certainly related question: what IS high alcohol?

Is it the 14% cut-off, with “high” being above and “low” being below? This certainly seems to be the most commonly deployed barometer, but is it appropriate?

Honestly, I don’t think so, because I think “high” and “low” are relative terms, and what is high for one varietal, for example, may not be so high for another varietal. To simply say that if it’s over 14% ABV it’s a high-alcohol wine is, to my mind, a fairly meaningless assessment, and one doomed to inaccuracy, because it’s devoid of context.

As far as I’m concerned, the question should be, is the wine balanced? If you’re noticing too much of the alcohol, and not enough of the other components, then it’s a high-alcohol wine. This can happen at 13.2%, and it can happen at 15.2%. Conversely, if the wines wears its alcohol well, and is integrated and harmonious, then the wine is accordingly a balanced wine, and not high-alcohol at all. This can happen at 13.2%, and it can happen at 15.2%.

Consider the Ridge Vineyards Geyserville, long hailed as one of the most consistently balanced, elegant zinfandels California has ever produced. (“Year after year, Ridge makes some of the most polished, refined, and beautifully balanced zinfandels in California.”  – Karen MacNeil, The Wine Bible)

I took a look at the past thirty years or so of Geyserville, and came up with some interesting tidbits. For example:

1996 Ridge Vineyards Geyserville, 14.9% ABV

“A powerful wine that manages to wear its alcohol gracefully” — excerpted from a Stephen Tanzer review

And from Wine & Spirits Magazine: “This is the Ridge zinfandel of the vintage and certainly one of the very best overall. Well-farmed old-vine fruit, combined with Paul Draper’s informed winemaking, provide a supple and elegant zin. Because the fruit isn’t as dense as in some vintages, the wine has a lightness and grace to it that is ideal with food. It’s dark red in color with vivid aromas of oak spice, pepper, venison, bacon, plum and wild berries, the palate supple with firm acidity. Not overly complex, just beautifully balanced and complete.”

And from Wine Spectator: “… Supple and harmonious …”

Graceful? Supple? Lightness and Grace? Harmonious? At 14.9% ABV? Go figure …

Now, take the 1998 Ridge Vineyards Geyserville. It clocked in at 14.1% ABV. And yet here is Robert Parker, the purported Godfather of Support for the “ripe” style:

“One of Ridge’s classic efforts, the 1998 Geyserville (74% Zinfandel, 15% Petite Sirah, 10% Carignan, and 1% Mataro) possesses Bordeaux-like complexity and elegance…This classy, elegant, restrained, yet authoritatively rich Zinfandel should be consumed over the next 5-6 years.”

Hmmm …

Now, let’s jump all the way back to 1982! What did the critics say then? Well, Wine Enthusiast called the nose “overripe.” It was 12.6% ABV! But, lest you go thinking, “Aha! See! That’s the way it used to be done, lower alcohol!”, jump back even further to 1978, and you’ll find the Geyserville coming in at 14.9% ABV, and being described by the very same Wine Enthusiast reviewer as: “Deep, complex … almost Burgundian style.”

The point being that, while the alcohol levels vary notably (something the reviewer notes, insomuch as he calls the 82 “low alcohol” and the 78 “high alcohol”), the quality remains consistent, and balance is paramount.

In its many-decade history, the Geyserville has been as low as the low 13s, and as high as the high 14s, and it has accrued praise and appreciation throughout, and given great joy and pleasure to those who have tasted it.

So is Geyserville a “high-alcohol” wine?

Don’t bother answering, says me, because it’s the wrong question.

And on another note, Steve Heimoff made an interesting comment to his own blog post (in response to an earlier comment in the feed); when he wrote:

All I’m saying is that, from my vantage point of tasting nearly 5,000 California wines a year, I don’t see them moving away from high alcohol, especially the Cabernets.

Which of course got me thinking of the Ridge Vineyards Monte Bello.

So I did the same sort of thing as I did with the Geyserville; I went looking back through the long history of Monte Bello, to see what I could discover about alcohol levels. Dig this:

The 1970 Ridge Vineyards Monte Bello was 13.5% ABV.  The 1962 (the first Monte Bello ever produced) was 12.4% ABV. The median there is about 13% ABV. The 2007 Monte Bello (current vintage) is 13.1%ABV.


Now, are we the exception to the rule? Perhaps. Perhaps not. But I’m pretty sure it’s not the Monte Bello that Steve (or Oz) are talking about. And I’m certainly not presenting the above as any sort of challenge to their points.

Rather, it’s just another way of approaching my primary thesis, which is that,  at the end of the day, I truly believe we should be debating balance first and foremost, not alcohol levels. ABV is certainly a legitimate sub-category in any debate about any given wine (as are fruit, minerality, structure, spice, acidity, etc.), but it’s just that, a sub-category, and nothing more or less.

Now, I should disclaim all the above by saying I recognize that Oz Clarke and Steve Heimoff are talking about something a little different; what they’re essentially talking about is the continuing dominance of a style despite a sea of rhetoric seemingly indicating a sea change in another direction; their point seems to be that it is everything from wishful thinking to out and out hypocrisy to believe that the style in question is in fact changing.

This is not what I’m on about. They may in fact be right. But my concern is the focus of the debate itself, which I believe may need some re-framing; getting away from primarily obsessing over alcohol levels, and the question of high vs. low alcohol wines, and focusing instead on the question of balance.

And on yet another note, I think we also need to be careful about getting too cynical about our wine buyers out there.

As wine producers, I think we can actually happily show great respect for, and faith in, our consumers and their palates. They may not all understand secondary malolactic fermentaion, or know what the word “veraison” means, or be able to discuss the difference between pad and membrane filtration methods, or define “brix levels,” but they can tell balanced from unbalanced, on a visceral if not always analytical level. And that’s a great thing. And sure, they might buy the “fruit bombs” sometimes, but they buy lots of other styles too, and that’s also a great thing. Their ability to discern and to experiment, to learn and to change, to vary and to sample; this is what keeps us all in business. And believe you me, they can spot a good wine, and they can spot a not-so-good wine, and the difference is balance. Balance is what give a wine its magic; that unnameable certain something that makes one wine an “excitement wine,” and another one not. And I truly believe that, in the end, that’s what wine consumers are responding to.

Balance. It’s what makes a wine sing.

I see it every day in our tasting rooms. I see it in their faces, that slight and subtle, inward-looking smile that twinkingly emerges when a magic wine hits their palate. They may not always know the what, where, how, and why of why the wine tastes the way it does, but they can sense it when it’s good.

And I say it’s good, when it’s balanced.

Categories: Bordeaux varietals, Cabernet Sauvignon, Geyserville, History, Monte Bello, Press Reviews, Tasting Notes, Tasting Rooms, Varietals & Blends, Viticultural Salmagundi, Wine Blogs, Wine Quotes, Wine Tales, Winemaking, Zinfandel

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4 replies

  1. Great article and this has been the opinion I have come to also after years of wine drinking. I no longer try to pinpoint 10 different flavors or aromas. The wine is either balanced or not. Now of course what seems balanced to me may not to others. As I like my vinaigrettes a bit more acidic, I have the same taste in wines. Last note, I came to this realization when I tasted a wine that I loved and was very surprised to find out it had a 15% ABV. At that point I stopped caring about all the numbers and winemaking techniques and just trusted my palate.

  2. Most interesting article. I met a gentleman in Italy licensed by the Italian government to taste and describe wines among other things. It was his opinion you should never be able to discern the alcohol on the nose or palate. He said, however, you needed around 13.5% to preserve a wine. He was the first person to tell me when push comes to shove good wines are those you like and buy time and again. Based on his recommendations I have a modest collection of 300 bottles and mostly Tuscan wines. The range of alcohol abv is 12.5% to 15.0%. Not a single one of these can you detect the alcohol on the nose. Almost all are full bodied reds with loads of character and long finish. The tannins are smooth and easy on the palate.

  3. Bravo! I think your point about balance is spot on! I also think you’re right about consumers…As a relative newcomer to wine, expressing a wine’s qualities doesn’t always come easy. That’s a work-in-progress for me. But after I started tasting more wine I could tell the difference between balanced and unbalanced wines, and I know what I prefer!

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