Tuesday, September 14, 2010

13.5 Is The New 12.5

In our sommelier courses, they taught us that 12.5% Alcohol by Volume (ABV) is the mid-range for table wines. (12.5% is also known as Bordeaux weight, as Bordeaux wines traditionally came in at that level of alcohol.) Moreover, our Profs consider a wine at 12.5% ABV to be medium-bodied. (Body is the perception of weight in a wine.  Alcohol contributes more to that perception than any other element in the wine. More alcohol means fuller-bodied.) At or below 11% is light-bodied and a wine at or above 14% is full-bodied. (Like my Profs, I’m drawing these boundaries somewhat arbitrarily.)
But that’s not true anymore. Over the past 20 years, alcohol levels have gradually increased to higher and higher levels. Why? One factor is the slavish consumer following devoted to some wine critics whose personal preference is for deep purple, big fruit, oaky, full-bodied (high alcohol) wines. Climate change is another factor, as grapes consistently reach full ripeness with higher sugar levels, which converts to alcohol through fermentation. In fact, these days many wines go through alcohol reduction to get under the legal limit for table wines in various jurisdictions.

So, in today’s wine universe, 13.5% is the new 12.5%, the new midpoint. And when I look at most of the selections rolling through Vintages these days, 13.5% is certainly the mid-point. Might be even higher.

Why am I going on about alcohol levels? Thanks to my horrific summer cold that just won’t go away, I’m still without my sense of smell. (Jeez, this better be temporary!) But as I said last week, without the ability to get aromas and flavours in wine, my focus goes to other factors, like body and the sensation of alcohol.

In almost all of the fuller-bodied wines (above 14%) that I’ve tasted in the last 3 weeks, the sensation of heat from alcohol prevails. Sometimes it’s even a burning sensation. Why didn't I notice this before? I think that the (usually) powerful aromas and flavours in full-bodied wines tend to mask that sensation of alcohol. Take those aromas and flavours away and the hot punch of too high (?) alcohol is obvious. (I’ll admit that the aromas and flavours would not divert a more discerning taster than me.)

For me, I’m going to pay more attention to the presence of that hot alcoholic sensation in full-bodied wines (>14.5%) from now on. And I’m going to look for wines that keep those alcohol levels down. I don’t want to feel the burn anymore.

Subscribing to this blog through RSS or email is easy! Just click on the subscribe link to the left ←


  1. A key attribute for a high-quality wine, in my opinion, is balance. Alcohol, acidity, flavour intensity, body, tannin etc. should be in proportion to one another. And this can be done at higher alcohol levels, but when it isn't...

    I feel the same way as you, I don't like that sensation of burning when alcohol isn't balanced. And when my allergies are acting up, or I have a cold and I can't sense those other characteristics as well, the alcohol just jumps out at you. It can be difficult to get passed that and still judge the wine fairly. ;)

  2. You're right, Ken, balance is the key attribute. I wonder...is too much alcohol a fundamental fault, or is it something that can be counter-balanced by flavour, acidity, and tannin? Chacun a son gout!

  3. "Chacun a son gout": nail on the head. ;)

    Wine should really be all about your own experience with it. Standard and/or systematic evaluation criteria definitely has its place, as it allows us to have a framework for conversation and description of what one might expect. But ultimately you decide what you like and what you don't.

    Too much alcohol, while not a fault in the technical sense, can certainly be a barrier to enjoyment, when not in balance. I guess what I am getting at is that the numberic percentage alcohol shouldn't be used, on its own, to determine what is too much alcohol.