Alcohol in Wine: Is Bigger Always Better?

It’s an old debate that doesn’t need any introduction, but it seems that the vast majority of wine drinkers are still on the fence as to what the “appropriate” level of alcohol in a wine should be. To look at this from a purely personal stand-point, I’m no different. To me, wine drinkers go through an evolution of-sort with regard to their preference on the “octane level” of the juice they’re drinking – whether they know it or not! I’ve found this to be most prevalent with American wine drinkers.

As vinophiles start out their wine journey, most “cut their teeth” on fairly generic vino. Straight-forward, typically sweeter and lower in alcohol i.e. Riesling, Rose, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Grigio et al. The reds follow shortly after.

From there they start progressing “bigger and richer.” Wines that pull-no-punches and make no apologies for their levels of extraction and alcohol; i.e. Australian Shiraz, Californian Cab, Argentine Malbec and possibly Italian Amarone etc.

Next (and usually influenced by whichever article they’ve recently read which touts the benefits of wines with “subtlety”), they start to reverse their preferences into the Old World methodology of: restrained fruit, “savory elements” taking a more prominent role, higher acidity and certainly lower alcohol. Think Burgundy, Spanish Tempranillo, Oregon Pinot, and often obscure varietals from Italy etc.

The last stage in this evolution (and I’m happy to say this is the phase I’ve finally reached), is the “on the fence” stage. Here, drinkers can recognize the importance of restraint and balance, but also know the value of rich, intense and more powerful wines. A 16% alcohol Californian Cab is welcomed with open arms when paired with a porcini-crusted New York Strip Steak, whereas a 13% Montrachet from Burgundy would work wonders with Lobster with drawn-butter.

The time that people spend on each stage very-much depends on the individual. Some will linger for the majority of their life on the first stage, without ever-much branching outside their comfort zone, unless forced. (NB: These people I feel sorry for!) Certainly advancing outside of this category requires a little more investment, both in time (to seek out wine retailers with a wider range of products) and money (we are taking a step-up in quality here after all), but not a sizeable amount of either when done right.

Part of me thinks….ok…..that’s a lie…all of me thinks….that the whole alcohol debate is really just another excuse for wine drinkers to fain an air of superiority with regard to the stance they’ve chosen. As if there weren’t bigger things in this world to worry about! In the same way that maybe you have a penchant for classical styles of artwork. It doesn’t mean to suggest you should look down on those who skew towards more modern styles of art. The simple fact of the matter is that it doesn’t make your palate any more refined or discerning due to your preferences for a wine with lower alcohol, and vice-versa. After-all, everything has its place.

Published: July 29, 2012

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