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On Tasting
Thoughts on Wine and Alcohol
Monday, 28th August, 2017  - David Farmer

A few decades ago, seemingly rising from no-where, the daily wine news became concerned with the higher alcohol content of some wines. Over time this worry filtered across to regular wine drinkers.

These comments brought together two thoughts; issues to do with alcohol and health and the views of experts claiming higher alcohol wines were often hot and clumsy with unbalanced tastes.

This debate puzzled me as serving customers since 1975 taught me a common concern was being assured that the spirits, beers and wines being purchased had not been watered down. This was most apparent with those who purchased sprits and beers where prices partly reflected the taxation on the alcohol by volume and cheaper prices were viewed with suspicion.

A few years ago the keynote speaker at a conference in Melbourne, from Tesco the giant UK supermarket chain, noted that consumers were concerned about high alcohol in wine and his buyers were responding by searching for wines with lower alcohols. He gave a warning that the industry should take notice and do something about it.

Higher alcohols of course are associated with wines from warm climate regions where wines commonly have over 14% alcohol and many well-made wines will be over 15%.

Back when I was composing wine advertisements in the 1990s I often noted when the alcohol content was over 14% as a signal to indicate quality as it correlated with grapes being fully ripe, meaning deep colours and rich flavours and thus a good purchase.

Today looking back I am unsure how these concerns flared up. Did they begin with warnings by health professionals, or was it a spontaneous move by consumers wanting a healthier life style and thus worried about alcohol levels and calorific intake, with this trend being noted and written about? Or was it initiated by wine writers who had became irritated with strong, rich wines and it spread from this as a fashion statement?

I also detected a third theme which began in America, and spread to Australia, which was taking a contrary view, likely from envy and dislike, to the eminent critic Robert Parker who it is said favoured rich, full flavoured wines of higher alcohol.

Those confounded by Parkers eminent status have suggested that Parkers views have even influenced how wines are made, as producers tried to gain his favour by making the big wines which he endorsed.

Also woven into this debate is the thought that the health objective can be achieved by promoting the taste of cooler climate wines which are slightly lower in alcohol plus encouraging all wine makers to make wines with lower alcohol.

Over the years I have received numerous emails on this topic and replied briefly and inadequately to them as it's a complex topic and one I find hard to simplify. I have written about this topic previously and links to some of these articles are listed later.

Here then is my detailed response.

The Alcohol Debate and Wine.

The discovery of fermentation and alcoholic drinks has played a complex and I think a major role in society.

Since alcohol has an unusual role it is natural to have an on-going discussion about balancing the pleasures of consumption with the behavioural change created and related health issues.

Thus I find a focus on the alcohol content of any wine and what may or may not be an acceptable level all rather pointless as it's only a shadow of a much bigger issue which is asking, what role do you want alcohol to play in your life.

Like most drinkers I have wondered would it be possible to have the experience without the problems of recovery. I suppose in theory you could make a wine, remove the alcohol, retain all of the complex additions which developed during fermentation and maturation, and add something to substitute for the weight of the alcohol.

A complex soft drink but would there be any point. Isn't the basis of drinking found in the consumption of the alcohol? Surely those who worry about a few percent of alcohol in wine should consider a much bigger issue which is whether they should drink at all?

I write these notes from the Barossa Valley, a centre for warm climate reds which can push to the limit the amount of sugar which can be converted to alcohol, and as I find the wines excellent to drink I will do my best to avoid a bias.

Here are some customer opinions:

From S.
'I think it would greatly enhance decision making for (some) customers if you were to include the alcohol percentage in your descriptions, especially of red wines.  So many red are made 'hot' these days, and 14% is too high for some. The lesser alcoholic wines present other attractions to the palette, and I for one would like to know which ones they are. You made a point of the 6% alcohol of the Burgoyne Moscato, and it was (is) delicious. I heartily recommend you include this information for all your wines, but especially the reds.'

From O.
'Love your stuff and have made a purchase of some trial whites recently. Regarding the reds can I suggest for ageing drinkers that you publish the alcohol levels. It seems many of my friends, now in the 65/70 age bracket are looking for lighter drinking. I appreciate however that could be difficult in the wine regions you represent.'

From C.
'I have ordered a couple of cases from you recently and notice that a lot of your wines have a high alcohol 15%+. While that might be ok some of the time I think winemakers tendency today is to not be too high in this area. Is it possible for you to list the alcohol content in your wine descriptions. That would help me and maybe others when making choices from your lists. Eg I would be interested to know the a/c of the Stockwell Creek King Shot shiraz.'

And thoughts from experts:

James Halliday:
'The subject of alcohol levels in red wines – especially from shiraz and grenache grown in the Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale – is a hot topic these days. It is à la mode for critics to lambast wines with 15-16.5% alcohol, and I know I cannot help but be influenced adversely when I taste such wines. Yet I also know you cannot judge a wine on numbers, be they alcohol, acidity, pH and/or residual sugar.'
The Australian, James Halliday, 2nd August, 2014.

Chris Hatcher:
'While some of the wines in the Wolf Blass range reach up to 15.5% abv (alcohol by volume), Hatcher insists he's not out to make big Aussie blockbusters. I'm not trying to make big, ripe, heavy styles of Shiraz – I hate the overripe, Port-like styles; I'm pursuing freshness and brightness. But some years you're forced to go riper as there's nothing worse than lean, mean, green fruit.'
Lucy Shaw, Drinks Business, 29th July, 2013.

Andrew Jefford:
'I almost felt like a spy. I was there to taste some of Australia's most astonishing red wines, yet I hardly dared tell anyone I was going. When I owned up later, and shyly admitted how much I'd liked them, I was met with near-incredulity. At least once, I was asked to confirm what I'd just said. These are the great wines you aren't, in right-thinking circles, meant to like: too rich, too much alcohol, too many 'Parker points'. They swim like bandit trout against Australia's current tide of early-picking righteousness and buttoned-down restraint. But, sorry folks, great they are.

The man who lives, quietly enough, up at 9 Stone Chimney Creek Road is Chris Ringland, and the wines I would use ´great' about are his 2007 and 2008 Shiraz (alcohol levels 17.3% and 18.3%).  They are enormous and liqueur-like, but in no way specious or confected. I'd call them profound, essence-like, saturated in extract, aromatic to the last drop, shocking in their depth and density.'
Decanter, 26th November, 2013.

Three general themes are apparent from customers and comments by professionals:

a) Concern that a high alcohol percentage may lead to the wine being too rich and extractive while hot unbalanced characters may make the wine unpleasant to drink though the experts suggest caution.

b) The suggestion that if the alcohol percentage was noted by retailers it would help in making buying decisions with professionals suggesting that this number is of little use in a buying decision.

c) Alcohol in relation to health issues.

Examining the World of Alcohol

I recall from my retailing days the steady sale of Polish Pure Spirit which was 70% alcohol by volume (abv). The point of buying ethanol in its purest, tasteless form is for the buyer to decide the flavour and final strength they wish to drink.

This after all is best left to the consumer as only they know how much water or juice to add. Indeed most of the worry of customers was to be assured the spirit products had not been watered down.

When serving a brandy, gin, whisky or some other spirit the strength is rectified by adding flavoured waters, fruit juice or water. For those who drink on the rocks or without ice I have never heard it said, this Scotch is too strong or burns from alcohol.

When making cocktails I believe that it is essential that the taste of the base spirit such as the rum or gin is readily apparent. If it is so diluted and saturated with sugar and fruit juice that you hardly know if it is alcoholic this makes it another drink entirely and today these are called alco-pops.

When bottling the alcohol content is watered down to a uniform standard that the maker thinks 'possibly' best represents the product though as mentioned tax and the retail price are large considerations. In Australia a general standard means spirits are bottled at 40% abv though there was a period when the strength dropped to 37.5% abv to lower the retail price. It is best if all spirits are sold at the same strength with the same bottle size so consumers can make price comparisons.

To repeat, the percentage of alcohol at bottling is also weighed against the cost of the excise-duties which increases or decreases the likely selling price. Thus the best alcohol percentage for serving is only one consideration as after all most consumers dilute the spirit with waters and flavourings. Many single malt whiskies which are drunk neat are bottled at over 50% abv which the distiller determines best reflects the enjoyment of the malt.

Fortified wines offer another challenge as they are rich in sugar which disguises the alcoholic content though it is generally agreed that 16% to 22% abv is needed to enhance the taste.

Fine, delicate finos are made from grapes with little flavour, like palomino, and are an expression of the flor living on the wine and alcohol to produce aldehyde flavours. They are perfectly balanced dry wines and I have never tasted a delicate, flor fino marred by alcohol and find them perfect at 15.0% to 18.5% abv.

Table wines are different again and in Australia are generally considered balanced when sold with an alcohol content of 12.0% to 15.5% but can be higher. Natural lower alcohols are possible but are generally sweeter meaning the conversion of sugar to alcohol was not completed. Many popular wines are sweetened and may contain well over 20 gms of sugar and unusual wines like sparkling reds may contain in excess of 40gms of sugar.

Cool and Warm Climates Sugar and Alcohol

Since the amount of sugar developed in the grape is related to the alcohol produced it is instructive to look at what nature provides for a few diverse regions and how these components can be altered in the wine making process.

Alcohol gives body to a wine thus while it has no flavour it lifts and promotes the myriad other flavour chemicals. Thus it has importance in the mouthfeel and low alcohol wines taste like something is missing. I do not discuss here the other important consideration which is the narcotic effect of drinking alcohol.

One of the coolest sites is Orange, NSW, where grapes at full ripeness ferment to an alcohol of 12%. These cool climate styles are noted for delicacy and lightness and have a much lower flavour impact. If the grapes are picked too early or the vintage is cool they can appear too light, perhaps tart and are not as pleasant.

Grapes when fermented dry will contain less than 2 grams of sugar. Sweeter styles such as those labelled as fruity or moselle are sold with high residual sugar and it is possible to have alcohols of 9% abv or less. A calculation then needs to be done to convert this sugar to reflect the true alcohol. Note it takes about 18 grams of sugar to produce 1% of alcohol.

The next time you are admiring the beauty of say a J.J.Prum German Riesling with an alcohol under 8% just remember it may contain 40 gms of sugar which will convert to another 2% of alcohol. If fermented dry it is unlikely to meet with the same approval as the wines will appear skinny and lacking in flavour.

While the alcohol argument is about over ripe, warm climate styles the far bigger problem lies with cool climate regions, which being marginal, means at times the weather leaves un-ripe grapes and the result is pale feeble wines. This is often seen in wines from the famous French region of Bordeaux which in cool years produces wines of low alcohol, light colours and flavours which can taste green and lean.

In warm climates it is unusual for a vintage to be so cool that at harvest the reds show unripe green characters. Of course a maker may wish to pick earlier than the norm meaning the wines will have lower alcohols, and a different flavour spectrum, and while this taste is atypical it may have appeal to some consumers.

Balancing Chemicals and the Flavours

The winemaker then has a variety of ways to alter the final taste of the wine you buy in the shop. Since grape sugar can be added to wine in Australia this allows for an early harvest when acids and delicate flavours can be captured and the light mouthfeel and tartness can be balanced by the addition of grape sweetness.

It is normal to take the grapes to full ripeness and thus flavour while watching the balance of acids though if these drop below desirable levels, acids such as tartaric can be added later to boost a fresher character.

The reverse is usual in the northern hemisphere where the climate means acids are generally adequate and obtaining full ripe characters which convert to alcohol are harder to achieve. In this case it is legal to increase the alcohol by adding sugar to the fermenting wine. Indeed this process of chaptalisation is needed in a poor, cool harvest to save the grower from ruin.

Thus it can be see that the taste of wine is an interesting balance of sweetness, acids, and alcohols and a tiny complex array of flavour compounds. In general every wine you buy will have had some adjustment at the winery done to make it more pleasant to drink or to target a style for consumers who like sweet or dry styles.

And note that clever ways can be used to remove alcohol from wines to meet a demand by consumers for a lower alcohol wine.

At this point it is also worth mentioning that the types of wines which can be made are endless. An interesting Australian example are the Semillons from the Hunter Valley. These are often picked early before full ripeness when the alcohols are lower and while at times pleasant when young in general they are better left to age so the acids mellow.

Another example of the use of grapes which often do not get to full ripeness is Champagne, the making of which is as much an example of an industrial process as it is of making wine from fruit.

Alcohol Content on Labels and the 1.5% Alcohol Wine Rule

The alcohol content of the wine is on the label though all is not what it seems as the figure may vary by 1.5% another reason why it is not a good idea so select a wine by a number.

There are many reasons for this, though it is often to do with labels being printed well before bottling while adjustments are being made to the final wine. This provides flexibility especially for large company bottlings meaning the alcohol shown on a mass market brand may vary slightly from the actual.

This is also a problem for wine casks where economical printing of the container requires a vast number to be printed yet the contained wine will alter in alcohol as the packages are used. For example wines from several vintages will be used.

Even so I would guess that the percentage on the label is likely correct to within 0.5%. Small producers, Glug being one, show the correct figure at the time of bottling though this could still vary by plus or minus 0.2%.

Buyers should note then that a local or imported wine which is quoted at 14% could, in an extreme case, be 12.5%% or 15.5%. Many Australian warm climate reds are quoted as 14.5% which readily covers cooler or warmer vintages allowing labels to be printed well in advance.

I may add that I have never found an example of an Australian wine being offered at an unbelievable low or high percentage that would suggest deception. Nor have I noted any winery using the 1.5% rule to suggest for example that it makes wine with the lowest possible alcohol and in this way gaining a marketing advantage. It is though possible.

When producing advertisements for the Theos large chain of Sydney stores in the late 1990s I would frequently refer to the alcohol content, and the higher the better, as a sign that the red wine was full bodied and rich and thus a good buy.

In summary the rules allow producers a large amount of lee-way. This tells me the large variance was seen as of little consequence. Today it may be viewed with concern though I find that variations in alcohol are pretty meaningless.

Alcohol Extract and Unbalanced Wines

Since I find it pleasant sipping a cognac of 40% abv or a delicate, watery white, fino of 17.5% abv I am perplexed that experts and customers can find hot tastes in richly flavoured, dense, extractive, warm climate reds.

I wonder if they are getting confused with the weight of extract. This can be coarse if the fruit has been roughly handled with prolonging pump overs to extract too large a load of coarse tannin or the wine has been back blended with heavily squeezed pressings.

For an alcoholic burning sensation to be apparent would really take some doing in the wine making. I am not sure how to make from warm climate fruit, a pale wine, with so little extract that the sensation of alcohol is the defining feature. It may be possible with a variety such as Grenache but we are really referring to poor winemaking and I do not think this is what customers are referring too.

In passing I have noted many references over the last decade to unbalanced, alcoholic Australian wines but curiously they never mention the name of the wine. If commentators would just say, the following six wines are to be avoided I could then taste them to understand the problem. There idea of a hot, dull, prune like red, may well be my idea of a nice drink and at least then I would know.

There is no correct way to make a wine and if a maker wishes to leave grapes hanging for so long that they dehydrate so the chemicals evolve and the resulting wine takes on new tastes, so be it. If some want to make wine from drying grapes on mats, of which there are several Italian styles, then the market will decide what will sell.

I look back over a lifetime of wine drinking and I have no recollection of overly hot wines. Unbalanced wines and wines which are just too extractive to enjoy I have found though not very many.

I take the view that many who should know better think it is a fashionable to talk about hot wines and their objectivity is missing. We must not forget that to dislike a style is normal though not for a professional, however to invent stories to be part of a group is another thing entirely. Is a deep denial of the influence of Robert Parker perhaps a problem?

On this topic let us not forget the first public tasting of Penfolds Grange. 'The Sydney preview [1956] was an unmitigated disaster. Many of the tasters didn't simply dislike Grange they damned it and mocked its creator. The wines were accused of being too oaky, too heavy, made from overripe grapes, and being positively undrinkable.' Perhaps the most damming blow came from the Penfolds winemaker John Davoren; 'Schubert, I congratulate you. A very good dry port, which no-one in their right mind will buy-let alone drink,' Max Schubert Winemaker, Huon Hooke.

The Other French Paradox

The French paradox concerns low levels of heart disease even though the consumption of cholesterol and fats is high but here I refer to the 'The Other French Paradox' which points out that the great French vintages equate with warm to hot summers and reds with higher alcohols.

I quote from the master, Harry Waugh, this from, Beaujolais Country, The Compleat Imbiber No 6, 1963 (Vista Books, London):

'I have a few, alas only a few, bottles of Julienas 1947 and 1949 left, and these are quite outstanding. They are enormously full, rich wines with a high degree of alcohol. When my particular 1947 Julienas was being made the vats became so overheated during the fermentation that water had to be poured in to cool the fermentation down, and even then the wine had an alcoholic content of 17 degrees instead of the normal 11 or 12, and is fabulous-proof indeed, as it turned out, of the Beaujolais belief that in the great vintages the wines can be so fine that, with bottle age they can be compared with many of the masterpieces of the Cote d'Or. As my 1947 Julienas was so remarkable, I tried an experiment; I invited some really discerning friends in the wine trade to two luncheon parties. I told them they would be drinking two great burgundies ´blind' and would say which they preferred. The wines were my Julienas 1947 and the Romanee Conti of 1937 made from pre-phylloxera grapes. At the first luncheon of six people the voting was three all and at the second, four to two in favour of the Julienas! This extraordinary wine astonished everyone, as it still astonishes me.'

A white wine like Chablis made in a miserable year is a miserable wine. Riper grapes bring flavour and I am ever reminded of the quip of Robert Parker about 'the anti flavour wine elite'. You need alcohol weight to keep interest as it's the most important of all building blocks. The taste of ethanol is rather neutral with a weak burning sensation when it is watered down but it gives weight to wine which after-all is a tiny percentage of flavourings and 85% water.

I have touched on many of these thoughts in previous articles of which a few are:

High Alcohol - The Debate Rolls On

The Other French Paradox

High Alcohols and Bad Press About Australian Wine

Alcoholic Sugar Bombs, Pseudo Energy Potions and Other Shameful Drinks

How You Can Drink Smarter

All of us need to think about our alcohol consumption as there is no doubt the accumulation impacts on health.

Drinking of wine in moderation is a large plus as it is such a complex magical beverage, so much so that I find the best way to understand wine is to see it as a gift of the gods.

I think a focus on a healthier way of living, which means you should worry about a few percent of alcohol and thus deny yourself the wines you would like to drink, is being silly.

Warm climate wines are bolder and more full bodied than those from cooler regions and as such often appear lighter on the palate, as do varieties like pinot noir, though many bigger styles from cooler regions have only marginally less alcohol.

I am not swayed by stories of the hot burning tastes found by some in wines over 14% as after-all the job of winemakers is to make balanced wines with agreeable tastes.

Thus I have the deep suspicion that the concern about alcohol is more to do with a current fashion. This fashion couples objectives of health with promoting lighter styles with lower alcohols when this is contrary to natures wish as to what wine can be.

I find these concerns simplistic, and of the order of issues we all face in life ranks in the non-existing category. Drink what you like when you like but be careful as no one says you can drink all you like whenever you like as alas a penalty will appear.

Since customers have been swayed and are concerned about full bodied wines there has been a small trend to pinot noir, warm climate grenache styles and cool climate reds as they appear lighter on the palate, though the alcohol is often little different to full bodied reds making me wonder how a shift of 1% to 2% alcohol is weighed against pleasure.

The processes of making wines explains the range limitations of alcohol while cautionary thoughts from experts about not buying on numbers have been quoted.

If you want what the Barossa Valley does well you will not get it with a 13,5% abv red unless it is picked earlier and then the style will be different.

I have spent a lifetime drinking and see the important issue as asking yourself what role do you wish ethanol to play in your life. Worrying about a few glasses of wine which contain 10% more abv than you think you should be drinking strikes me as the wrong approach when it is the total consumption over the week, the year or your adult life which is the important number.

It is of course never too late to cut back alcohol consumption and is likely sound advice. Thus I offer a few thoughts.

1. Instead of worrying about the alcohol by volume of each glass just cut back consumption by 10% or as the song goes If you have a drinking problem why not drink a little less.

2. Often now I use an old fashioned, cheap, short champagne flute which cannot hold much and find this slows my consumption. The giant glasses which readily overfill to hold 300ml increase consumption and should be used with caution.

3. Wines from hot vintages can have higher extract and alcohol and while illegal I suppose these are watering down in wineries. Using this as a guide it is OK to add water to dilute your wine. Add 10% water to a big Barossa red and you will hardly detect the difference. This will still taste better than a lower alcohol wine made from early picked grapes or perhaps a wine from a cooler region which you do not favour at this time.

As with all things the solution lies with the individual. Winemaker can do anything but to make lower alcohol wines from warmer regions means a compromise. In turn while a glance at the stated alcohol is of interest you do not know the correct number and to buy a red of 13% abv in preference to one with 14.5% abv rather than by the potential taste is not recommended. Do not buy on numbers as it is basically meaningless.

There is also the consideration of sugar as low alcohol wines either have high sugar content, may contain unfermented grape juice or the alcohol has been lowered by removal. There is nothing wrong with this but surely greater pleasure will come from drinking less of well-made wine.

If you find well flavoured 11% to 12% abv dry wines which suit your taste then you may indeed have found what you want. I have seldom found such wines to my satisfaction but each to his own as I like flavour.

With that said surely over a life time of drinking it is better to discard a few less empties each year and continue to experience all the wines made around the world. The chance to do so only comes once.

Warning: Alas this final thought must be given and not because of my responsible serving of alcohol certificate but because I ask you to reflect.

Ethanol which we refer to as alcohol is a drug. I believe its consumption makes life more interesting but those who make, sell and consume its many products must never forget that for a minority it can create misery.

A few percent must nor drink at all as they become addicted, a further few percent are rated as high risk and must be sparing in consumption. For the rest of us the traps are many and we must never forget the reasons not so long ago there were such strong temperance movements.

I deplore those who disguise alcohol with flavoured colourings and sugar in a manner which all too readily disguises the potency of the drink. You have been warned to drink in moderation for good reason.

And note I am not a later day preacher as the slogan 'drink in moderation' was placed on Farmer Bros branded wines in 1982, well before it became standard practise.

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The World Versus Robert M. Parker, Part Three

Saturday, 18th March, 2006

Halliday v Parker Continues to Attract International Attention

Thursday, 5th January, 2005

"Thank You Mr. Evans and Sorry Mr. Parker"

Thursday, 8th December, 2005

The Differences of Opinion Continue: Mount Mary Quintets vs. Robert M. Parker Jr. Part 2

Monday, 5th December, 2005

Sharp Differences of Opinion Over Mount Mary

Monday, 14th November, 2005

The Views of the Economists With a Sense of Humour

Friday, 14th October, 2005

Wine Quality: Does Terroir Matter?

Friday, 14th October, 2005

Thoughts on Wine Judging

Thursday, 13th October, 2005

What You See Affects What You Smell and Taste

Tuesday, 13th September, 2005

The New Taste of Wine

Friday, 2nd September, 2005

Consumers Disagree with Wine Experts

Saturday, 27th August, 2005

Drinking From Special Wine Glasses

Thursday, 4th August, 2005

Now, This Wine Drinks Well, Night After Night

Monday, 18th April, 2005

Corks, Stelvin Caps and Oxygen

Wednesday, 6th April 2005

A Peep Behind the Wine Show Door

Thursday, 17 March 2005

Going To Your Second Wine Tasting

Saturday, 11th December, 2004

What You Bring to Your First Wine Tasting

Saturday, 4th December, 2004

What Do Show Medals Mean - Part 2

Tuesday, 7th December, 2004

What Do Show Medals Mean - Part 1

Friday, 3rd September, 2004

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