High Alcohol Wines

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High Alcohol Wines

Postby Daniel Kovnat » Mon Jul 22, 2013 3:08 pm

It seems to me that there has been a growing trend, at least in Israel, to produce higher and higher alcohol contents of wine. I opened a Galil Mountain Winery Yiron vintage 2009 the other day and did a bit of web "research" to be better able to discuss this wine which I tasted and loved. It is, as you probably are aware, a Bordeaux style blend, with the 2009 Yiron made up of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 35% Merlot and 5% Petit Verdot. Other years have seen other blends, including a Cabernet Sauvignon content as low as 48%. But to the point of this subject, the alcohol level is rising from the low of 13.9% in the first vintage in 2000 to this vintage's 15.5%. These "high alcohol" wines are taxed at a higher level in the United States and are frequently denigrated, especially by sommeliers. This subject was addressed in an article in the NYTimes several years ago, and, more recently, by LettieTeague, in a Wall Street Journal article. These are not exactly industry standard journals to reference, but being a wine neophyte myself, I am open to listening to many opinions. The WSJ article is quite balanced and presents both sides of the controversy. The author concludes that she "realized as I'd researched the whole alcohol conundrum, I actually had no idea of the alcohol levels of the wines that I own. So I went down to my cellar and began turning around bottles (alcohol percentages are most commonly noted on the back labels). I discovered that a good number of the wines that I'd enjoyed with my friends, and blithely paired with my meals, were well north of 14%. They had flavor and intensity and they were immensely pleasurable." Here's the link to Teague's article: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702303828304575180273604214884.html, which I think you might enjoy reading.

I found this 2009 Yiron a delicious complex blend of multiple aromas and flavors that I described in my blog, israelwinetaster.com and, like Lettie, the high alcohol did not seem to bother me.

Do you think like those sommeliers and wine critics that the heightened alcohol exaggerates everything, turning the wine into some sort of terrible caricature of itself. Apparently they have even used words like "monstrous," "fruit bombs," as well as "Frankenwine" to describe these wines they consider unbalanced or do you think that alcohol delivers flavors, and in the words of wine director of Le Bernardin, a Michelin three-star restaurant in New York "It's like the fat in the meat."

I agree with Le Bernadin's wine director. Now it's time for you to log in on this one.
Last edited by Daniel Kovnat on Tue Jul 23, 2013 6:01 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: High Alcohol Wines

Postby Harry J » Mon Jul 22, 2013 4:17 pm

bsd
Daniel with you on this one. h
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Re: High Alcohol Wines

Postby Isaac Chavel » Mon Jul 22, 2013 4:42 pm

If the wines are balanced, then who really cares? If one is looking for more buzz, possibly under the impression that wine is healthier than hard liquor, all the better. But it seems to me, and I am really guessing here, that failure to keep the alcohol in balance is more disastrous at higher percentages than at lower.

I'll let others weigh in on pairing with food.
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Re: High Alcohol Wines

Postby Gabriel Geller » Mon Jul 22, 2013 6:04 pm

I'm with Isaac here. It's only a matter of balance.

And Dan, as you describe it well, the Yiron is well-balanced and delicious regardless of its relatively high alcohol content and many other wines such as Dalton Reserve Merlot 2010 and as many of the Shirah wines from California with 15%+ alcohol are balanced and a pleasure to drink. I suspect the rage has a bit to do with the anger of many wine writers, sommeliers and aficionados towards the so-called "Parkerisation", an era which has seen a substantial increase of alcohol in many of the Bordeaux wines since the early 1980's.

Now, while Israel has suffered some very hot summers in both 2009 and 2010 resulting in higher alcohol in many of the wines from those years, the better wineries/winemakers still have managed to make some beautiful wines in such tough conditions. Some interesting exceptions such as Netofa Tinto with only 12.8% alcohol in 2010 (impressively low alcohol by Israeli standards) and 13.3% in the 2011 (surprising given that 2011 was a relatively "cold" year) and yet the '11 is a much better wine (IMHO) than the '10.

Best,

GG
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Re: High Alcohol Wines

Postby lewis.pasco » Mon Jul 22, 2013 6:33 pm

First of all, I think we need to make a distinction between high alcohol red wines and white wines.

For white wines, which tend to be more delicate right off the bat because they are made from fermented juice whereas reds are fermented must - juice with the skins and (usually) seeds included during the fermentation. Red wines carry high alcohol contents much more gracefully than whites. Its rare that i'll find a white wine enjoyable if its alcohol content is north of 14%. I simply find the alcohol itself, with its very significant flavor profile of sweetness, body (viscosity), and bitterness, often overwhelms the flavors I'm looking for and enjoy in white wines. I like crispness (acidity) and numerous aromatics that are negatively influenced by high alcohol levels in white wines.

Reds are typically another story for me, and as several here have already noted it's a question of balance - so long as the wine has phenolics and acidity to balance the alcohol itself I can enjoy red wines with over 15% alcohol just fine. However, I do not think these types of (dry) red wines age as gracefully as their lower alcohol counterparts, because at some point the alcohol itself becomes a (if not THE) dominant flavor characteristic of the wine as the phenolics condense and precipitate out of solution.

The conundrum for winemakers is that very, very few bottles of wine - even among those varieties that have historically shown they can age and improve for 20 years post vintage in the bottle - are kept for extended cellaring. Since 99%+ of all wines are going to be consumed within a year or 2 (I don't know the actual #s, but it's huge) why worry about longevity? Make the wine as attractive and precocious as it can be, and impress consumers with the texture and sweetness that high alcohol levels bring!

One reason this is a "recent" trend is simply the improved technology of commercial wine yeast. Some yeast strains allow winemakers to make high alcohol wines with less trepidation that the wines will "stick" with residual sugar. The yeast themselves (certain strains anyway that the yeast producers are happy to label as such) can ferment naturally up to 16% alcohol. Various specialty yeast "foods" and supplements include vitamins and other substances that help the yeast endure high alcohol environments and enable them to ferment high sugar musts to dryness.
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Re: High Alcohol Wines

Postby Yossie Horwitz » Mon Jul 22, 2013 6:55 pm

Many of my readers have complained over the years about the rising levels of AbV, primarily in Israeli wines but also those from California (where some of the garagiste wines can reach 17% AbV(!)). As has been said, the primary issue is balance - is the alcohol is in balance with the rest of the wine, it tends to be less noticeable for most and really only an issue for consumption (i.e. drinking too much) and most complaints have come from people with a lower tolerance (many older folks), whereby once they have had more than 2 glasses of wine, higher alcohol levels start to effect them, leading them to heavily prefer wines south of 12-13%. The trend towards higher alcohol is certainly not limited to kosher, Israeli or otherwise but part of a global trends, to some extent tied to Robert Parker's preferences (which is certainly part of the visceral reactions many have towards the higher AbV wines). I'd venture that Global warming, customer preferences and other factors have played a significant hand in this. Also, specifically to Israel, Gabe is correct that 2009 and 2010 (which are most of Israel's current releases) were much warmer, leading to much higher alcohol.

At the end of the day - if the wine is well made and in balance, unless one has a low tolerance for alcohol in general, I'm not sure there is that much of a difference between 13-15% AbV...
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Re: High Alcohol Wines

Postby Richard Fadeley » Mon Jul 22, 2013 11:01 pm

As someone who admittedly drinks about a bottle of wine each night, I find it very offensive and unpleasant to try to drink more than one glass of wine over 13.5% ABV. The higher alcohol wine competes unfavorably with food, cause headaches, and there are plenty of well made and delicious food friendly wines @ 13% or below (mostly 13%, that seems to be the magic number for me). My test of a wine is if I can get through a second glass and still am interested in the wine. For this reason I am mainly interested in "old world" wines, and I am rarely disappointed. It may be that I am a wimp, but the alcohol definitely is a turn-off for me, and I think perhaps for a lot of potential wine drinkers that are only exposed to "new world" and mainly California wines. Headaches are an instant turnoff.
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Re: High Alcohol Wines

Postby lewis.pasco » Tue Jul 23, 2013 8:41 am

My test of a wine is if I can get through a second glass and still am interested in the wine.


This is indeed a very good "test". But claiming that "old world" wines meet the standard of being below 13.5% alcohol just isn't true and hasn't been true for some time, IMO.

Many of the best red wines from Italy - Barolos, Barbarescos, Chiantis (especially the top shelf ones) - along with Rhone and CdP wines, the very best Bordeaux, the best red Burgundies, etc etc regularly hit 14% alcohol.

As an aside, one of the most interesting tastings I ever participated in was a tasting of de-alcoholized California Cabernet. A wine that was close to 15% alcohol had it's alcohol lowered in steps of 0.4% alcohol. This was done by taking a small portion of the 15% wine, removing almost all the alcohol from it, and adding it back to the mother wine in various ratios. It was a CERA (California Enologists Research Association) event. Astonishingly the winemakers almost unanimously preferred the wine at 12.8% or 13.2% alcohol, with a few opting for the 13.6% blend, but no-one preferred it at 14% alcohol or higher. The main reasons cited were the preference for "fresh fruit" flavors versus "dried or cooked fruit." Frankly I don't think the test was 100% fair. The lower alcohol wines showed the acid more clearly, so for me really to say what might be the "best" wine would have to include the higher alcohol wines after some acid adjustment.

I wrote "astonishingly" because almost all the winemakers there were regularly producing red wines greater than 14% alcohol, many over 14.5% every vintage.

I later made a Sauv Blanc, picked very ripe for flavor purposes, and by the same method lowered the alcohol from over 14% down to 13.2% - and the wine was roundly praised by RP as the best ever SB that winery ever made. His quote was "Finally winery xxx has made a Sauv Blanc with some character and flavor!"
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Re: High Alcohol Wines

Postby David Raccah » Tue Jul 23, 2013 4:53 pm

Fascinating stuff Lewis would be cool to try indeed. That said, high alcohol happens and high tech can be used to spin the alcohol out. But, if the wine tastes good and is stabilized - I have no issue and enjoy it. a counter example were many of the wines we had Sunday night at a dinner. Most of the wines were over oaked, over sweet, over ripe, and down right unbalanced. Even Yossie, king of all things sweet - agreed on some of them.

Israel has a serious problem and it may well be a good idea to spin out the alcohol and to pick a drop earlier. I absolutely agree with Gab, Netofa, Teperberg, Flam, and others really did a great job with wines and control the sweetness. How and why, I could care less. They control it and their wines are lovely. Work needs to be done on this issue for sure.

Interestingly, I continue to bring up Cali wines as a counter example. Shirah, Covenant, and Brob make sweet wines with great control and create wines that lack over ripe fruit characteristics.

Again much of this is my 2 cents,
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Re: High Alcohol Wines

Postby Daniel Kovnat » Mon Jul 29, 2013 1:31 pm

Richard Fadeley wrote:As someone who admittedly drinks about a bottle of wine each night, I find it very offensive and unpleasant to try to drink more than one glass of wine over 13.5% ABV. The higher alcohol wine competes unfavorably with food, cause headaches, and there are plenty of well made and delicious food friendly wines @ 13% or below (mostly 13%, that seems to be the magic number for me). My test of a wine is if I can get through a second glass and still am interested in the wine. For this reason I am mainly interested in "old world" wines, and I am rarely disappointed. It may be that I am a wimp, but the alcohol definitely is a turn-off for me, and I think perhaps for a lot of potential wine drinkers that are only exposed to "new world" and mainly California wines. Headaches are an instant turnoff.


I like your second glass test, but for my part I use the second sip test. That is, if the first sip turns me off, I rarely have much good to say about that wine. Hey, if I paid $XX.XX for the wine, I'll probably drink it, unless it is really bad (cork disease or vinegar).

On the other hand, I have my doubts about one person drinking a bottle of wine each night. IMHO this is excessive. As a physician, I can add that this is not healthy. On the other hand if you have help drinking that bottle of wine each night, great. There is nothing like drinking wine with friends and loved ones. That's what it's all about. L' Haim.
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