I’m a firm believer that size doesn’t actually matter. At 5-foot-9, I’m pretty tall for a woman, though I’ve never had a problem dating a shorter guy before. I’ve lived happily in apartments both tiny and large. And I don’t fear any size portion of food put in front of me.
The very same rule applies to my wine. I see nothing wrong with the powerful, dark fruity blasts of pleasure that complex red wines so generously offer. In fact, I often desire them. But with these big-bodied, bold-flavored deep reds, it’s not uncommon to also find heightened levels of alcohol, and not everybody loves punchier wines as much as I do. Others loathe them, running in the other direction when they hear the phrase “high-alcohol wines” being used.
For some reason, bigger and boozier wines frighten people. They’ve even intimidated me before. It happened most recently when I tasted a collection of Napa Valley wines with a friend – a blogger who has worked in the wine world for years. I picked up a bottle of merlot and flipped it over before uncorking it, expecting to see its alcohol by volume (ABV) resting somewhere around 13 percent, maybe 13.5 at the highest. The number I saw was not even close.
“Woah,” I said, shocked. “The label says this wine is 16.5 percent!” I don’t often see wines so high in alcohol that aren’t fortified, and wasn’t sure I wanted to try it.
“Geeze! It’s almost a port,” my friend said, “But you never know, it could be interesting.”
It was interesting, indeed. Although the wine was surely high in alcohol, it wasn’t that scary at all. Instead, it generously offered a certain refined complexity you just don’t find in easy-drinking, lower alcohol reds. It tasted richly concentrated, but lively and juicy, and didn’t fill my mouth with the burning sensations that less pleasant, poorly made high-alcohol wines often cause. Instead, the balance between ripe fruit, acidity and tannins kept the booziness at bay.
There was no escaping the wine’s massive personality, and it singlehandedly reaffirmed my love for big, bold reds. My friend reacted differently, and I could tell the wine had left him feeling rather unsettled.
“Maybe it’s just too hot for me,” he said before dumping his glass and moving on. I couldn’t help but think the wine had been doomed from the moment I announced its alcohol content.
Our difference in opinions was nothing unusual. In the wine world there has, for years, been an ongoing debate about whether or not high alcohol levels are a good or bad thing. There are many wine lovers, myself included, who desire these big, complex and concentrated red wines. But there’s also a handful of geeky wine bloggers, writers, and sommeliers that absolutely despise these so-called “Frankenwines,” and claim they are too strong and difficult to drink.
What constitutes a “high-alcohol wine” anyway? For a concept that stirs up such a heated dispute, nobody can actually agree. If we’re speaking legally, a “table wine” is one with an alcohol content under 14 percent, and anything over that is considered a “dessert” wine. But the U.S. government also defines vodka as a tasteless, odorless, colorless spirit, though we’re all aware of the array of flavored vodkas that line store shelves.
Despite the obviously outdated laws, 14 is still the arbitrary number high-alcohol haters have established as the cutoff for alcohol percentage allowed in wines. They slap the negative title onto any wine over that magic number. But I have plenty of wine-drinking friends whose vocabulary doesn’t include the term “high-alcohol wines,” and who aren’t fazed by any number listed on a wine bottle.
The debate may never see an end, but one thing everyone can agree on is the clear difference between today’s wines and those made decades ago, when they used to hover around the 12 percent mark. Now, you’d have difficulty finding a great deal of wines teetering around that range. You’re more likely to encounter wines with an alcohol content around 13 to 14 percent, with many soaring even higher.
Some experts blame global warming for the increase of alcohol in wines. Heightened temperatures in wine regions around the world turn out riper grapes, which means an increase in sugar levels. During the winemaking process, sugar is what gets converted to alcohol. So the more sugar in the initial grape juice, the higher the alcohol percentage is likely to be in the final wine.
Global warming isn’t necessarily a bad thing for all wines. There are certain grapes that thrive in hotter climates, and naturally yield wines that are fairly high in alcohol on their own, like shiraz from Australia, Spanish garnacha, and America’s iconic grape, zinfandel from California.
But there is a growing crowd of influential bloggers, writers, and sommeliers who are resistant to the steady rise of bigger wines. They insist that the problem extends beyond global warming and begins with prominent wine critics, who regularly award higher scores to higher-alcohol wines, such as big cabernets from Napa Valley or the rich, rustic reds of the Rhône Valley. These high ratings are advertised alongside their respective wines in shops for all consumers to see. In the minds of these high-alcohol haters, the result is an abundance of fame-seeking, money-hungry winemakers determined to win high scores who choose to harvest their grapes later and riper.
Other producers that make boozier wines feel the need to combat the negative attention they get from the elitist anti-high-alcohol wine crowd a few different ways. Some winemakers add water to overripe harvests in order to dilute the alcohol content of their wines, though it seems a little unusual to me to interfere with grapes that naturally lend themselves well to bigger wines.
Then there’s the labeling trick: In the States, a margin of error of up to one percent is legally allowed for wines over 14 percent. So winemakers are allowed to disguise their biggest wines with a slightly lower number hidden on the label. That wine you see marked as a desirable 14.0 percent may very well be pushing upward of 15 percent. The European Union doesn’t allow such a large discrepancy – wines must be accurately labeled within 0.5 percent.
In some cases, producers actually embrace the stigma of bigger wines. Certain winemakers in Australia showcase their most massive wines with names like “The Full Fifteen” and “The Ball Buster.”
High-alcohol wine haters do have one legitimate gripe with these wines – they don’t marry well with food. Because of this, several notable sommeliers from trendy wine bars in the East Village and wine directors in upscale San Francisco restaurants now refuse to include them on their wine lists.
While it’s a valid argument, there’s no rule that a wine must be compatible with food for it to be enjoyable. Most Americans consume wine without any food anyway. So while high-alcohol wines may not have a place at every dinner table, it doesn’t mean there’s no place for them in our lives.
Still, I don’t see what the big deal with high-alcohol wines is. Those who love higher levels of alcohol find that its intensity brings out the ripeness of the fruit, and when in balance with quality tannins, it can actually fine-tune a wine. There doesn’t have to be anything so terrifying about a wine that packs a little extra heat. The other day I enjoyed the classic rich, jammy taste of the 2009 Grgich Hill Estate Zinfandel, which clocked in at a boozy 15.3 percent but was full of character.
High-alcohol wines are too often portrayed as being so overpowering that a nap is needed after just one glass. If you know anything at all about wine, it should come as no surprise to you that it is an alcoholic beverage. If you’re concerned about getting too drunk, simply drink a little less. The difference in alcohol content between a wine that is 13.5 percent and one that is 14.5 percent is so minor that’s it nothing to fret over.
This fall I spent a month traveling through several wine regions in Italy. During my few days in the Veneto, I had my first introduction to the bold and beloved Amarone, an intensely powerful but beautiful wine. It’s produced with dehydrated grapes that sit for up to four months after being picked. When the drying process is finished, they are extremely concentrated and raisin-like. Once the grapes are fermented, the result is a complex, rich, full-bodied wine with well-integrated fruit flavors.
Many of the ones I tasted clocked in around 16 percent alcohol by volume, but their thick cherry flavors and robust licorice aromas were so complex, I couldn’t even tell how booze-heavy the wines were. I loved the Pasqua Amarone della Valpolicella Classico 2008 – with its big aromas of maraschino cherries and ripe plums, it felt warm but was balanced.
“When I drink Amarone,” said Giovanni, my Italian travel companion, who works for a consortium of producers in the Veneto, “I know I cannot drink as many glasses as I would have of something lighter, like sangiovese,” He paused to savor another sip. “But that doesn’t mean I don’t still love it with deep passion.” Giovanni then raised his glass for a toast.
It is true that high-alcohol wines still need to maintain two important qualities – they need to be approachable and they need to be drinkable. But to me, the alcohol percentage hidden on the label of a wine bottle is nothing but a number.
So, does size matter when it comes to your wine? Only you can be the judge of that.
I’ve chosen the wines below to show that high-alcohol wines are nothing to fear. With the right balance between fruit, tannins and acidity, you won’t even notice their strength, unless of course, you drink the entire bottle.
Amador County, California, 15.2% ABV, $17.99
Ripe plums, blackberries, and hints of licorice aromas jump out of the glass. Big and wild for sure, but without the dreaded fruit bomb, and that’s what good zinfandel is all about.
Southern Rhône, France, 15.0% ABV, $15.99
Wines from the Vacqueyras region are known for being powerful and high in alcohol, and this one is no different. Deep ruby in color with aromas of dark berries. Full-flavored with chocolaty and concentrated fruit tastes with a savory finish.
Barossa Valley, Australia, 15.3% ABV, $15.99
From a hot climate region, this blend of mostly shiraz is big and thick, with intense cherry and plum aromas. It’s lush and smoky with a finish that lasts forever.
Calatayud, Spain, 15.3%, $9.99
Earthy and spicy, with blackberries on the nose. Its full-flavors of stewed plums and ripe cherries and a tickling tannic finish distract you from its booziness.
South Australia, Australia, 14.5% ABV, $15.99
A concentrated blend of powerful shiraz and fruit-forward grenache, this wine has complex aromas of ripe black cherries and menthol, with a balance of jam and dried herbs in the mouth that keep the heightened alcohol at bay.
Campo de Borja, Spain, 14.5% ABV, $12.99
Lively and vibrant purple in the glass with enticing aromas of plums, vanilla spice and a hint of mocha. Full-bodied with fruity flavors and silky tannins, it’s an always-reliable crowd pleaser.
Veneto, Italy, 16.5% ABV, $26.99
Powerful, rich and velvety, with well-integrated plums and dark chocolate flavors and a lasting finish that disguise the massive alcohol inside. An elegant Amarone that isn’t overpowering or out of balance.
Illustration by Claire Jelly