Sunday, October 6, 2013

Alcohol – how low can you go?

One of the most fascinating things about wine is not only discovering how complex the subject are, but also how you interact with wine and how your taste evolves over time. One of the things I have discovered is how I relate to high and low alcohol wines. My personal taste has for a long time shifted towards wines with less alcohol. But my appreciation for lower % and wines with more finesse seems to be in line with a permanent shift in taste. Even Eric Asimov from The New York Times reports: “of a slight shift in taste in the United States, the proverbial pendulum swing, from heavy wines of power to lighter wines of greater finesse”.


It has always been tricky to navigate around the subject of alcohol level. The risk of just another trench warfare discussion about numbers has always been present. Such a debate will always try to set a threshold number what’s acceptable and take it from there. The discussion is in addition a one-way thread – focussing only on high numbers or have you ever heard anyone wanting more alcohol is their Moscato d’Asti or German Spätlese?

Picking wines from a %-level is like label checking a piece of clothes and not buying it because it wasn’t the right brand. Snobbery at worst – maybe even prejudices, dogmatic and sacred will often be the first reaction towards those who didn’t focus what was actually “inside”.

Mostly the discussion finds its compromise by concluding that the numbers in itself has little meaning, if the wine were in “balance”. 


But what does balance actually mean?

It means that high alcohol wines can work and you will see taster’s saying that no burning or heat was felt. So end of discussion – or? In my opinion the balance argument is flawed because it’s just another individual opinion and not a very complex parameter.

“The wine worked for you – but it didn’t work for me”.  

Temperature is also critical for high alcoholic wines and the overall drinking pleasure. I don’t know about you, but some years ago every wine concluding argument in my own backyard was always related to some pompous tasting event. The event was a race with points, notes, ridiculous amount of bottles and blue teeth. Nowadays I see a far more diverse landscape, where we have shifted from tasting wine at these tastings events, to drinking wine at home. This has changed the concept of “balance” for me. A good wine has to provide drinking pleasure – not matter what. The criteria for success are quite simple; the next sip just has to be better and better. Often such wines are characterized by you wish there was more left in the bottle when you have finished it.



So how did this start?

Well it all started quite innocent by falling in love with cool tempered wines. It was a desire for finesse and not power. Red Burgundy was one of the first discoveries for me, but financial wines I felt myself a bit distant from these expensive offerings. So I discovered German Spätlese, but despite providing great finesse I found it difficult to use these wines with everyday food. Next on my route was Champagne and today my greatest love affair. Champagne is a phenomenal drink. Incredible with food, great finesse and always ranged between 12% <> 13% alcohol. From there I have taken a big journey into natural wine. Natural wine have learned me a great deal about my perception of wine and really rocked my boat.  One of the many things I can take out of this journey, have been how low alcohol wines have proved to be a key element to drinking pleasure. It’s interesting to see how your taste buds starts to reform when you have so many low alcohol wines and I can’t help to compare it with how I saw the same pattern some 6-7 years ago when I started to drink Non dosage Champagne. When first addicted – some “Brut” Champagnes was suddenly appalling sweet. The same side affect has happened again, as I am now far more sensitive against high alcohol wines.

And I am not alone. Everyone of those I has shared wine with over the past 10-15 years are moving in the same direction.

So today – when I buy wines – yes admitted, I “label check”. What’s the alcohol level?  Above 14,5% and it’s 95% a no go. I can make a few exceptions when especially referring to a Barolo. They are often in this high end, but somehow they can balance at this point. But I need food with Barolo – I can’t just drink them alone…and it doesn’t really hurt when I think of a beautiful risotto and Barolo  

But overall I prefer wines in the range of 11% <> 13% and 90% of the wines I drink are in this range.

I think low alcohol wines are “the new black”. It will be more than a trend, because when you have first learned to appreciate the light weighted finesse of these wines, you want more and you will never ever go back to heavy dull and clumsy blockbuster wine. 

What do you think?

6 comments:

Georgios Hadjistylianou said...

Thomas,

Great article regarding the alcohol levels and as you mentioned in this article, temperature plays a big role. I leave in Cyprus and in the Summer time, since we are eating outside with temperatures in the high 30's & 40's and humidity above 60% is even unthinkable for people to drink reds. When I mention red people are wondering if I'm OK. It all depends on individual perception and taste as you also pointed out!

This summer I persuaded a few of our guests to try natural wines from Conca di Barbera by Escoda-Sanahuja, the 2007 Les Paradetes with 13.5 alc. & from Terre Alta from Laureano Serre's Mendal, 2012 Roig Finca Espartal CS 14 alc. both, decanted them & placed them in a ice bucket resting on a layer of ice so they will remained cool.

In all, they were all very pleased that can enjoy reds in this kind of weather. These wines even the 2012 need some air and although the alcohol was above 13 they were very pleasant with grilled fish.

I also believe apart from the natural element in these wines, in the case of Laureano the NO USE OF OAK at all and with Escoda-Sanahuja the NO USE OF NEW OAK, they use 3, 4 even 6 to 8 years oak to aged their wines is what gives these wines the lightness.

You mentioned about Barolos, well the more traditional producers who don't use new French oak, there wines show more finesse. The addition of new French or American oak creates this "heavy-ness" not to meantion in most cases when young the fruit is no present.

Long leave balance!

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Claus said...

I would just add the possibilities in crisp, delicious Kabinetts @ 7-8% (e.g. from Willi Schäfer, JJ Prüm)

Cardinham | Killgrew said...

So, with whites I tend to be fine with a 11% or even 10....alcohol can be so overdone in bold reds distracting the flavors....I prefer around 13.5% on a red.

Steve
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