Chow Town

Wines with high alcohol content derided by experts


The current whipping boy among the wine intelligentsia is alcohol: wines that have “too much” alcohol are being berated in the wine trade and especially in the sommelier community.

These wines are accused of being out of balance — at a minimum. At worst, they are exemplars of a wine industry gone mad, creating lumbering Frankensteins without authentic origin and without the heart and soul that makes a great wine great.

Wines with high alcohol are to be shunned, though perhaps not to the level of townspeople with pitchforks and torches burning down the winery in search of the monster’s maker. But still …

These New World wines — and they are almost always from the New World, and most often from California or Australia — have been made from super ripe grapes and through elaborate and non-natural winemaking (or so the legend goes), their alcohol levels are horrifically inappropriate to true wine or at least just too damned high.

Precisely what level of alcohol is appropriate remains uncertain. One of the great minds of wine, Sacramento wine merchant Darrell Corti, insists upon never allowing table wines in his store that are above 14.5 percent alcohol.

I have no idea what the ideal alcohol level for any wine might be — some wines might taste too hot and alcoholic at 14.2 percent while others might taste perfectly balanced at 14.8 or even 15 percent.

But Corti and others can be forgiven their zeal for wines with lower alcohols. Just a few decades ago, wines (and this includes California wines) were 12 to 14 percent. Today most of the Golden State’s fare is well above 14 percent and some of it above 16 percent.

This may not seem like a great change, but now imagine the amount of alcohol in a few glasses of 13 percent alcohol wine. And imagine a consumer having 12 ounces of such wine over the course of an evening.

If the same 12 ounces were 15 percent alcohol, it would be like adding several ounces to your intake, and perhaps that would be enough to put you over the edge.

Why this increase in alcohol in the first place? Let’s talk about that in the next column.

Doug Frost is a Kansas City-based wine and spirits writer and consultant who for decades has happily educated the public about all things drink. He is one of only three people in the world to have earned the coveted titles of master sommelier and master of wine. He contributes a monthly wine column to The Star’s Food section.