Why there may be more alcohol in your wine

| June 28, 2012 | 0 Comments


Birichino’s Malvasia vineyard is producing some great white wine. Its 2010 is floral and  citrusy while still dry and clear.

Birichino’s Malvasia vineyard is producing some great white wine. Its 2010 is floral and citrusy while still dry and clear.

Alcohol is an obvious part of wine. It’s expected to be there. However, there’s a growing sense among wine drinkers that their drink is getting stronger.

Chardonnay seems bigger. Côtes du Rhône tastes hotter. And they’re right. It’s not just a feeling. Over the last four decades, the amount of alcohol in wine has steadily grown. Varietals and wines which rarely reached more than 14 percent before now frequently crest above 15 percent. At times, certain Zinfandel, Amarone, Shiraz and Malbec, among others, can even top out at more than 16 percent.
These higher-alcohol wines aren’t terrible or badly made. Many of them are quite delicious. But there seems to be no end to them and the reasons for this are many.
Wine-making has changed. Though generalizations and assumptions abound, there is a seed of truth that the spirit behind much table wine production has generally shifted from one of stewardship to one of creation. That is to say, the success and pleasure derived from wines has become less linked to the gentle mercies of any given vintage to the winemaker’s skills and tools. Granted, there is a baseline of climate, grapes and vineyard condition required for any quality wine. However, there are now more highly developed procedures, including micro-oxygenation and reverse-osmosis, readily available to winemakers to alter their wines not just when they have to rescue a terrible harvest. It is the very design and intent of wine production which has changed. And it has done so in both the New and Old World.
Chief among what seems to be altering the style of production is the desire for rich and ripe wines possessing soft tannins and less obvious acidity. This style of dense wine with its velvety texture is thought by producers to be both pleasurable for the general drinking public and found worthy of praise by the critics. As a result, grapes are left to hang and ripen for prolonged periods to maximize flavours and sugar and, conversely, lower acidity. Also, due to the continuing trend of hotter weather, certain areas, such as the traditionally hot climates of Europe, seem to have a difficult time not producing high-alcohol wines.
That said, the Old World can still be the source for many excellent examples of lower-alcohol wines. A classic example is German Riesling, and a delicious expression of this is Weingut Vollenweider’s 2008 “Wolfer Goldgrube” Kabinett Riesling. With only seven percent alcohol, much of the harvested grapes’ sugars remain in this wine as a fairly gratuitous amount of residual sugar. However, the acidity in this wine is so vibrant that the sweetness, texture and flavours come across as electric, weightless and joyful. This is tremendous wine for only $22 from Vintages.
But sweet wine is not the only option. If you want a dry wine with a reasonable level of alcohol, 13 percent in this case, there’s Birichino’s 2010 Malvasia Bianca. Malvasia is not a renowned grape varietal, and this wine is certainly not a common style coming out of California. Incredibly aromatic with lots of notes of floral and citrus, it’s bright, dry and clear. Made by fantastic people, it’s available through The Small Winemakers Collection wine agency for about $22.
A tasty example of a lower-alcohol red (13.5 percent) from the Old World is Fattoria di Magliano’s 2009 Sinarra. Though certainly not considered a classical representation of Italian wine, this delicious unoaked Tuscan blend of 95 percent Sangiovese and five percent Petit Verdot is packed with vibrant red fruit. The texture is fresh and incredibly food-friendly. This excellent wine can be purchased from the Stem Wine Group for $23.
A Canadian candidate is made from a grape varietal often thought to be a high alcohol culprit: Syrah. The Okanagan Valley’s See Ya Later Ranch makes a fantastic one, and their 2008 vintage is available from Vintages’ online shop for $25. With only 13.5 percent alcohol, the wine is very expressive with rich flavours of plum, chocolate and spice.
Alcohol is fundamental component of wine. Yeast creates it as a by-product of the fermentation process. Alcohol provides weight and structure. However, with the abundance of high-alcohol wines on the market, many wine drinkers are growing more sensitive to its presence. In the least, wines can seem unbalanced. At their worst, they’re clumsy, cloying and dulling to the senses. Any of the four wines above will provide a great wine-drinking experience while not overwhelming the palette.

Pieter Van den Weghe is the sommelier at Beckta dining & wine.

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