Uncle Al, or How We’ve Endeared Ourselves to High Alcohol Wines

magdeleine noir

As said by others before, wine’s journey into any glass begins in the vineyard. There, berries come to veraison, or ripeness, by collecting nutrition through their leaves via photosynthesis, an ability to convert natural sunlight into necessary nutrients. Three primary influences on the rate at which it occurs are (a) temperature, (b) light intensity, and (c) duration of light. Higher temperatures fuel photosynthetic rate, and length of daytime light allows for hours more of nutrition.

Yet, what factors in grape cultivation have led to the current trend of high alcohol content? What parts have vineyard management and horticulture contributed? First, climate’s role is important. Cooler sites like those in Burgundy and California’s Russian River Valley produce fruit that reaches physical maturity before sugars fully develop. Conversely, warmer areas – consider Lodi and Santiago, Chile, for example – experience the aforementioned increased intensity of sunlight, leading to harvests in which sugar content differs significantly from physical maturity. And, as mentioned in previous classes, sugars convert to alcohol with added yeast! Therefore, the greater the level of ripeness, the higher the alcohol! And, given the latest trend of fuller flavored, riper tasting wines, grape-picking has tended to occur later in the season, when such sugars are more fully developed. Not only this, but global warming, enhancements to farming practices, and better developed yeast strains have played parts, too.

Of course, wines are still made with varying degrees of alcohol. Here is a list of many, from low alcohol wines to those with medium high content. 

Low Alcohol (10% or less)              

  • Moscato D’Asti  5.5%
  • Kabinett Riesling 8%
  • Spatlese Riesling 8.5%
  • Alsace Blanc 9-10%
  • Muscadet 9.5%

Medium Low (10.5%-11.5%)

  • Muscadet
  • Sauvignon Blanc, Loire Valley
  • Lambrusco
  • Soave
  • Gavi
  • Pinot Grigio
  • Gruner Veltliner

Medium Alcohol   (11.5%-13.5%)

  • Bordeaux
  • Burgundy
  • Champagne
  • Cote du Rhone
  • Beaujolais
  • Chianti
  • Dolcetto
  • Barbera
  • Nebbiolo
  • Rosè
  • Sauvignon Blanc, CA

Medium High Alcohol (13.5%-15%)

  • New World Chardonnay
  • Viognier
  • Petit Syrah
  • New World Pinot Noir
  • Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot
  • Garnacha
  • Shiraz
  • Pinotage
  • New World Malbec
  • Barolo
  • Amarone
  • Brunello
  • Nero d’Avola
  • Chateauneuf de Papes

Today’s focus, Zinfandel, is listed with those wines that can clock anywhere between 13%-16% alcohol, too, mostly owing to the vine’s tendency to ripen unevenly. While some grapes’ brix, or sugar content, measures lower as the fruit matures, the levels belonging to others jettisons to levels reaching 17% or so. Average total brix determines alcohol content.

Two Sonoma County Zinfandels were compared today, Seghesio and Murphy-Goode “Liar’s Dice.”  Each comes with separate vintage and alcohol level. The 2013 Seghesio Zinfandel measures in at a respectable 14.8% alcohol, and the 2012 “Liar’s Dice” Zinfandel a whopping 15.5%. Differences? The younger wine manages masculine traits – blackberry jam and black pepper-like qualities finish with an assertive tannic burst. On the other hand, its elder is a pleasant, fruit-forward experience, with enough red cherry, raspberry, baking spice, and soft texture to make it suitable for a Pinot Noir lover.






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