I raced home from our favorite wine store, bag in hand, excited about what I had just found. I knew Natali would be, too.
“Check it out!” I hollered, holding the bottle over my head like an Oscar award.
“They got it back in!” she said.
It was our favorite Zinfandel, a weekly treat for us. The store had run out, but now they had restocked with the new vintage. I quickly released the cork and poured two small glasses.
After the first sniff, though, I knew we were in for a disappointment.
“Hmm,” Natali said, “this is… different.”
It sure was. This wine had none of the structure or spice from the previous year. Instead, heavy flavors of stewed fruit hung leaden on our tongues, and the peppery finish was more of a general heat. I picked up the bottle and inspected the label. My worst suspicions were confirmed: 17 percent alcohol, an unusually high amount of alcohol for wine. The highest percent, in fact, that a wine can achieve without having any outside alcohol added to it.
All wine has alcohol, of course. But the percentage of alcohol in each wine depends on a number of factors. Some are controlled by the winemaker, and some are totally out of their hands.
The biggest problem that winemakers face in not controlling alcohol content is the weather. While inclement weather can damage grapes, bringing hail or rain too late in the season, too much “good” weather can be, well, too much of a good thing. With just the right amount of sunshine and rain, a balance is struck and grapes that are just ripe enough are grown, crushed and fermented. If the summer is too hot and sunny, however, the grapes will ripen quicker. Riper grapes mean higher sugar content. Higher sugar content means, ultimately, higher alcohol content.
That’s not to say that wines with high alcohol content are bad across the board. Some grapes, however, just don’t do well at that level of alcohol. Again, it’s about balance. If you are making a wine with a very high alcohol content, you need something else to balance that out, like tannin. A higher amount of tannin in a wine with high alcohol content will provide another taste element to temper that hot, heavy, boozy flavor. That means either using grapes that are naturally higher in tannin, or letting the vat of wine macerate longer with the grape skins so the juice can absorb more tannin.
There are cases where the vintner manipulates the wine during the winemaking process in order to obtain a lower than usual alcohol content. This usually happens with dessert wines. As I mentioned before, alcohol is produced when yeasts come in contact with sugar. So if you want to make a wine that’s sweet, stop the fermentation before it’s finished. Many higher-end German Rieslings do this to provide sweetness to balance the natural high acidity of the Riesling grape. Often underrated (in my opinion), these wines are the essence of balance, with alcohol content as low as 8 percent.
Sometimes winemakers will add alcohol to a wine to stop fermentation and preserve the sugars. As I wrote several months ago, this is how port is made. The higher alcohol was originally used as a preservative because the majority of the port (from Portugal) was transported to England on dank ships with poor weather conditions. Now, many Port junkies consider the high alcohol content the perfect foil to the high amount of tannin in this sweet and thick dessert wine.
The bottom line is, be sure to check the label of the wine you’re buying. You might be surprised at what you’ll find, and how a heat wave in Sonoma the previous year will force you and your significant other to search for a new favorite wine.
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