There's alcohol in wine, you know
by Thor Iverson
Back in college, a group of friends and I went camping in
Maine. We gathered around our campfire, and (as college students tend to do) we
started emptying bottles of wine. I don't remember what it was, or who made it, but I
do remember it was bad. It didn't matter, though, because what we were
after was the alcohol. Predictably, the next morning we got the chance to enjoy
the wine a second time.
In the world of alcoholic drinks, wine is pretty low on the buzz-meter. Because
of that, and because wine usually is sipped more contemplatively than other,
more chug-worthy beverages, most people tend to forget that it even has
alcohol in it. But the alcohol is crucial for two reasons. First, without
alcohol wine loses a lot of its character. And second, alcohol itself is a
major factor in that character.
If you've ever tasted an alcohol-free wine, you know what I mean: all the
complex qualities that make wine taste like something other than grape juice
are missing. Alcohol plays a major role in carrying aromas to your nasal
receptors; without alcohol, the volatile aromas in wine remain in the juice.
Alcohol is also a significant part of what, in winespeak, is known as "body."
By way of comparison, think about skim milk versus whole milk. The palate
impression given by skim milk is light, watery, and thin compared to that of
whole milk, with its higher fat content.
Much the same thing applies with low- and high-alcohol wines: the former can be
light and easy to drink, and the latter can attack the palate like a tank.
Of course, whether a wine is pleasurable to drink doesn't depend just on its
alcohol level, but also on how well the alcohol is
balanced by other tastes.
Wines with a lot of alcohol but not a lot of
are known as "hot" -- they have an obvious alcoholic burn reminiscent of that
in straight vodka or cognac. And low-alcohol wines can be similarly unbalanced
-- they feel heavy and ponderous if the fruit isn't appropriately light.
Environment also plays a role; in the winter, high-alcohol wines seem a lot
more palatable than they do in the heat of
summer, and light-bodied wines can
easily fade into the background in January.
Wines average about 12 to 13 percent alcohol, but that number can vary
considerably either way. The most popular low-alcohol wine is probably Moscato
d'Asti, a delightfully sweet
from Italy, which is no more
alcoholic than beer and can be as low as five percent alcohol. Many
low-cost sweet wines with prematurely arrested fermentations (which keeps the
yeast from converting all the sugar to alcohol) are also low in alcohol;
jug and box wines
tend to fall into this category. Grapes with a lot of natural
sugar, on the other hand, tend to deliver high-alcohol powerhouses. Zinfandel
is the prime example here; a red zinfandel vinified with specially designed
yeasts can surpass 17 percent alcohol before all the sugar is fermented
away. Fortified wines -- those with spirits added to stop the fermentation,
such as port
and sherry -- can be even more alcoholic, often hitting 20 percent.
These days, unfortified wines are more alcoholic than ever. Part of this
is due to improved viticultural techniques, which allow grapes to hang on the
vine later in the season (and thus develop more sugar). Increased vineyard
plantings in hot, fertile areas (most of which aren't really suitable for
viticulture) have a similar effect. But the prime mover is taste; winemakers
are satisfying the public's desire for
big wines that deliver a big
impact on the palate. In regions where this isn't naturally achievable,
winemakers dump bags of sugar into juice that's about to ferment -- a process
called chaptalization -- to get alcohol levels up. Unfortunately, this often
results in out-of-balance wines. Worse, a lot of wines have gotten so
alcoholic relative to their other elements that they're more headache-inducing
that anything else, a problem that affects many white wines from California.
You can put this knowledge to use next time you're in a wine shop. When you see
a chardonnay at 15 percent or 16 percent alcohol, you know you're
dealing with a monster and should tread carefully. Conversely, an
11 percent Beaujolais
is likely to be more of a thirst-quenching picnic
wine than something to impress your wine-geek friends. And the alcohol level of
an unfamiliar wine can sometimes tell you a little bit about how it might
taste: light and soft, or big and full.
This week, a few recommendations (with alcohol levels included):
1997 Allegrini Valpolicella Classico ($10.99, 12 percent). The
versions of this delicious red (La Grola and Palazzo
della Torre) are favorites of mine; here's further proof that '97 made just
about everything better in Italy. Red apples and roasted corn, strongly
aromatic but light on the finish. Serve with white-meat dishes.
1998 El Grifo Malvasia Lanzarote "Dulce" ($14.99, 12 percent). An
early contender for my 2000 wine of the year. A sweet, floral, incredibly
complex white that remains light on its feet. Wet earth and lime, green apple
and peppermint . . . there's so much going on, it's hard to describe.
Best by itself, before or after dinner.
1997 Schoffit Chasselas "Vieilles Vignes" ($17.99, 12.5 percent).
It's illegal to plant any more chasselas in
Alsace, where this delicious white
is from. That's too bad, because if this rich pear and orange-blossom, slightly
sweet, anise-perfumed bottle is any indication, the grape is capable of great
things. Serve with mildly spiced fish or chicken.
1996 Gallo of Sonoma Zinfandel Frei Ranch ($17.99, 15 percent).
Chocolate, anise, and coriander heft up this blackberry bomb. It's smooth and
rich, and has the stuffing to stand up to the alcohol (which, for a zin, isn't
all that high). Goes great with stuff from the grill, or just your basic
Thor Iverson can be reached at email@example.com.
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