The puzzle of high-alcohol wines

By Felix Salmon
January 5, 2010
this was news to me:

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It’s well known that alcohol levels in wine have been rising fast. But this was news to me:

Rising alcohol levels have appeared despite winemaker efforts to keep them low. The dirty little secret of California wine is that a great deal of it goes through some form of de-alcoholization, where at least part of each vintage has alcohol removed to bring down the overall level.

Another approach is to “just add water” to the fermenting must to literally water down the potential alcohol. A friend calls this technique “adding Jesus units” because water is turned into wine instantly; he says that it is a common practice, if not one that anybody admits using.

How is it that even in the face of these extreme measures, red wine nowadays tends to cluster around the 14.5% mark, with some wines, such as the 2008 Marquis Phillips Shiraz, coming in at more than 18% alcohol by volume? Most wine-lovers I know prefer it when wine’s in the 12% range: those wines might not do very well in blind tastings, but they go much better with food, they are much more likely to express terroir, and — not to put too fine a point on it — you can drink much more of them without waking up in the morning feeling as though a cat is trying to claw its way out of your head through your eyeballs.

I don’t believe that this is a global-warming thing. And if it’s a function of winemakers feeling pressured to make high-alcohol fruit bombs because those are the wines which get high ratings on 100-point scales, then why would those winemakers overshoot like this and find themselves forced to de-alcoholize or even simply dilute?

In any case, I recently had a very good experience at one of my favorite NYC wine bars, Tarallucci e Vino, by simply asking them for the lowest-alcohol red on their list. If you’re stuck for what to drink, give it a try some time. If the place in question has a good wine buyer, you’re likely to find something pretty interesting and off the beaten track.

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