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Debate over the appropriate percentage of alcohol in your wine rages on

by TrevR on February 25, 2008

The AP has an interesting story examining the long-running debate over the appropriate amount of alcohol for wine.

It’s no secret that California reds, particularly those from the Napa Valley, have seen the percentage of alcohol per bottle steadily increase over the past several years. In large part, this is due to the fact that grapes are being left on the vine longer in an attempt to produce more flavorful wine, the consequence being an increase in sugar levels and eventually alcohol levels. Many wines from other regions still range in the 12-13% alcohol range, while many of the local producers here don’t sell anything below 14%.

A couple quotes from Napa Valley wine industry folks caught our attention in the article. First, Doug White, who is the director of operations at the Vintner’s Collective, said of the typical big, bold Napa Cabs: “They fill your mouth with flavor; you can chew on them. They linger on your palate when you’re drinking them and that’s what Napa is known for — its big, chewy cabs…”

Meanwhile, we found the following passage to be quite entertaining:

At Shafer Vineyards, a Napa Valley producer of highly rated reds, some coming in at 14.9 percent, winery president Doug Shafer won’t use technology to reduce alcohol.

“We like our wines. We like the fruit. We like the richness,” he said.

Shafer is aware of the debate over how much is too much, but says it’s up to consumers to decide what style of wine they prefer. “I’m not forcing anyone to buy our wines — we’re selling everything,” he points out.

Industry wide, “the quality of wines from around the world just keep getting better and better,” Shafer said. “I think this is the golden age for the consumer.”

Now, we’re admittedly fans of the in-your-face, ‘chewy’ Napa Cabs and Shafer certainly has a point–consumers can (and do) speak with their pocketbooks, so it could be argued that the local producers are simply giving consumers what they want. At the same time, we’d also love to see more local winemakers tame the growth in alcohol by volume just a bit.

The 2003 Hendry Block 28 Zinfandel we reviewed back in December came in at 15.1% alcohol, whereas the 2005 Folie a Deux Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon we’re about to open tonight comes in at a slightly more modest 14.4%.

How important (or unimportant) are alcohol levels to you? What’s the highest alcohol by volume you’ve ever had in a wine? Did you enjoy it, or not?

[techtags: 2003 Hendry Block 28 Zinfandel, 2005 Folie a Deux Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, alcohol, Napa, Napa Valley, Shafer Vineyards, wine, winecountry, winery]

About the Author

has written 716 posts on The Cork Board. He was born and aged in the Napa Valley and has a passion for wine, writing and social media, which led him to co-found this blog in early 2007. Follow him on Twitter @TrevR.

  • http://www.augustbriggswines.com/ Mark Koppen

    I think the highest alc “table wine” I’ve ever had was a 16.9% pinot noir from a prominent high-scoring winery in RRV with a very prominent consulting winemaker. I couldn’t drink it – the PN character was OK, but it tasted like it had alcohol added to it separately – it really stood out.
    At August Briggs this past harvest we had one very ripe old vine Zin lot reach 16%+, and then the fermentation got stuck with some sugar left. Apparently this can happen sometimes with old vine fruit as the nutrients in the grapes are not as robust to help the fermentation finish. So what Joe decided to do was de-alc a portion of the wine, so get the lot down to 14%, and at that point we can add yeast again to finish the fermentation to dryness. So, bottom line, we’re not sure this will make our final Zin blend; the jury’s out at this point. This is not normal for us, but it does show some of the issues that can arise with very ripe fruit and in making high alc wines.

  • http://www.augustbriggswines.com Mark Koppen

    I think the highest alc “table wine” I’ve ever had was a 16.9% pinot noir from a prominent high-scoring winery in RRV with a very prominent consulting winemaker. I couldn’t drink it – the PN character was OK, but it tasted like it had alcohol added to it separately – it really stood out.
    At August Briggs this past harvest we had one very ripe old vine Zin lot reach 16%+, and then the fermentation got stuck with some sugar left. Apparently this can happen sometimes with old vine fruit as the nutrients in the grapes are not as robust to help the fermentation finish. So what Joe decided to do was de-alc a portion of the wine, so get the lot down to 14%, and at that point we can add yeast again to finish the fermentation to dryness. So, bottom line, we’re not sure this will make our final Zin blend; the jury’s out at this point. This is not normal for us, but it does show some of the issues that can arise with very ripe fruit and in making high alc wines.

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