Alcohol in wine is created through a process called fermentation, whereby yeasts (either native or selected) convert the sugars in the grape juice into alcohol.
But what do we mean when we talk about the word alcohol as it relates to wine? There are so many things implied by the word. Here are a few major issues relating to wine and alcohol.
Alcohol and the Government
The level of alcohol in a wine is indicated on the bottle either as degrees or by percentage of volume (written as abv or %). In most countries it mandatory to state the alcohol level on the label.
The alcohol level of a wine is important not just because alcohol is intoxicating, but also because it is a big tax generator for governments the world over. Alcoholic beverages are taxed according to their alcoholic strength. For example in The United States, table wines are wines between 7% and 14%. These wines are taxed at one rate. Above 14% and up to 24% wines are classified in the U.S. as dessert wines and taxed at a higher rate. Fortified wines such as Port, Sherry or Madeira with alcohol levels ranging from 15% to 22% are also in this category.
The Accuracy of Alcohol Labeling
A fascinating, or perhaps disturbing, aspect to consider when reading the alcohol content number on a wine bottle is that it may not be true. Legally wine producers have a leeway of 1.5% either way. Hence a bottle of wine labelled 12,5% could in fact be up to 14% abv or as low as 11%. A number of canny, investigative wine journalists have actually had wines tested by specialist laboratories and found quite a few differences.
The Taste or Feeling of Alcohol in Wine
Last week I mentioned that alcohol is typically the primary determinant of body in a wine. Alcohol contributes to the viscosity of a wine. The higher the alcohol in a wine, the weightier the mouthfeel, and the fuller the body. Wines with alcohol levels above 13.5% are typically considered full-bodied.
Alcohol gives to a wine a sense of generosity, and warmth, which when balanced with the wine's other components should not be invasive or burning. Wines that seem overly or aggressively hot are usually out of balance.
Bad Press and High Alcohol Wines
Over the past few years a lot of negative press has been written about high alcohol wines. Some of it justified, as it is important to know how much alcohol you are consuming, but not all. Personally I would prefer to drink one glass of a delicious, balanced wine at 14.5% abv than three glasses of a mediocre-to-poor wine with only 12% abv.
Grapes grown in warmer wine regions will always have a higher potential alcohol. So long as there is enough refreshing acidity and enough fruit flavor and concentration in the wine to balance the higher alcohol, the wine should not be unbalanced. Of course, as with all things wine, personal taste plays a big part.
Low Alcohol Wines
Some wines such as off-dry and medium sweet German Riesling from the Mosel have naturally low alcohol levels of between 7.5% and 8.5% abv. Lower alcohol levels in wine can also be achieved through 'de-alcing', a fairly controversial operation. A number of different technical processes are available to winemakers using such technologies as reverse osmosis and the spinning core to reduce the alcohol levels in a wine. Advocates are adamant that 'de-alcing' lowers the alcohol without compromising the taste or any other aspect of the wine, while opponents strongly disagree. Personally I am all for minimal intervention when it comes to producing the wines that I like to drink.
Mary Gorman-McAdams, MW (Master of Wine), is a New York based wine educator, freelance writer and consultant.
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