Booze Hounds

Paul Blow

Some wines contain so much alcohol these days that strains of yeast have developed that can survive previously deadly levels of spirit. Not all wines, of course. Alcohol content varies widely. A couple of glasses of Napa Cab might get you blotto, while you might barely feel an Italian Pinot Grigio.

Standards for wine styles in this country were generally borrowed from Europe; and in France, traditionally, most wines had alcohol levels that are now considered moderate or even low—12 to 13 percent. Today in the United States, alcohol levels for most wines might start at 13.5 percent, routinely land in the 14 to 15 percent range, and quite often exceed 15 percent. The issue came to a head recently when Sacramento, California, retailer and noted wine expert Darrell Corti banned the sale of table wines in excess of 14.5 percent from his store because he felt that high alcohol was affecting the quality of the wines.

This 1971 Cab has 12.2 percent alcohol.

There are many theories as to why alcohol levels have risen so much. Some people blame the tyranny of wine critics, who have certain tastes that winemakers seek to satisfy. Wine Spectator’s James Laube is known to like big, intense, alcoholic wines (registration required): “more alcohol is an acceptable price for rich, flavorful, front-loaded wines that are engagingly complex and ready to drink the day you buy them.” Another theory is that weather is different now than in the 1970s, and that improved plant material (free of disease) and viticulture techniques accelerate sugar maturation, which affects alcohol levels. Finally, the American consumer, who may be relatively new to wine, is seduced by the big, ripe flavors of high-alcohol wines.

Things are further confused by the legal wiggle room allowed producers on wine labels. Wines above 14 percent can be off by 1 percent, and wines under 14 percent can be off by 1.5 percent (because it’s very difficult to predict final alcohol levels in advance of bottling, and labels are always printed beforehand). So that Cabernet you’re drinking that says it’s 14.5 percent alcohol might actually be 15.5 percent.

Alcohol in wine comes from sugar content in the grapes, so a lot of time you see the alcohol arguments linked to questions of ripeness in grapes. The longer grapes ripen before harvest, the higher-octane the finished product.

While this Cabernet from the aughts has 14.3 percent alcohol.

Those who like the big, ripe wines argue that the alcohol’s only a problem if you can taste it. A well-balanced wine with 15 percent alcohol won’t taste hot. Opponents say that it’s not just the taste of alcohol, but its presence—the fact that these wines will get you drunk faster, that alcohol imparts extra sweetness to wine, and that the wines are not elegant. Critics point out that Napa Cabernet of the 1970s was routinely around 12.5 percent alcohol.

Many winemakers are working to bring levels down. It’s not as simple as just picking the grapes earlier, though. Full flavors seem to come later and later, when sugars are skyrocketing. The key, according to Tony Soter of Etude Wines in Napa and Soter Vineyards in Oregon, may be to unlearn some practices and return to older styles of viticulture. “Low crops, low vigor, and stingy irrigation regimes—if not dry farmed—are keys,” he says. “New techniques in the vineyard to get more sun on the grapes to improve color and flavor development might have gone overboard.” Soter is altering his viticulture to get less sun in some of his vineyards, allowing the leaves of the plants to shade the clusters. Likewise with irrigation. “There’s some evidence suggesting that overwatering a vine can increase sugar development,” he says, noting that it’s common practice for growers to turn on the water as the summer heat increases in places like California and Washington state. “There’s a lot we can learn from the old farmers, who for years grew crops without chemicals and water. They were organic and dry farmers because they had to be. And these things can still be done—it just requires a commitment to doing things right.”

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.