Feel the HEAT

Winnipeg Free Press - Section E - - FOOD & WINE -

WINE bot­tles typ­i­cally have a lot of in­ter­est­ing things to say on the la­bels. On the front you usu­ally get the name of the win­ery, in­for­ma­tion about the grape(s) or re­gion, and the vin­tage. On the back la­bel is usu­ally some sort of story about the wine and/or serv­ing/ag­ing sug­ges­tions.

Hid­den among all this stim­uli — some­times on the front la­bel, other times on the back — is one lit­tle de­tail that can tell you a lot about what to ex­pect from a wine, but that most typ­i­cal con­sumers over­look.

It’s just a num­ber, but the al­co­hol con­tent by vol­ume of a wine can help de­ter­mine what kind of ex­pe­ri­ence you’re in for.

Gen­er­ally speak­ing, the al­co­hol con­tent on most white wines is some­where be­tween 11 and 13 per cent by vol­ume, while with red wines it’s in the 12 to 14 per cent by vol­ume range. Some whites like Ger­man Ries­ling may tend to be lower than 11 per cent, and some heav­ier reds will creep higher than 14 per cent.

Wine, of course, is fer­mented grape juice — the su­gar is con­verted to al­co­hol, with de­li­cious re­sults.

Stop­ping the fer­men­ta­tion process ear­lier leaves more resid­ual su­gar in a wine, mean­ing it will taste sweeter and the al­co­hol will be lower. This is most ev­i­dent in wines like Ger­man Ries­ling or Moscato, where al­co­hol lev­els are typ­i­cally be­tween seven and 11 per cent.

With higher al­co­hol lev­els in red wines, it’s some­times a wine­mak­ing de­ci­sion in a hot vin­tage to seek big­ger fruit ex­trac­tion, leav­ing the grapes on the vines to ripen longer. Higher su­gar in grapes means to make a dry red wine, there needs to be a longer fer­men­ta­tion process, which of­ten means higher al­co­hol con­tent.

Al­co­hol is felt most vividly on the fin­ish (or af­ter­taste) of a wine. Think about sip­ping a scotch whisky and the burn in your chest that you feel. That, along with the lin­ger­ing flavours on your palate, es­sen­tially com­prise the fin­ish of a wine — and I’ve had high-al­co­hol reds that have pro­duced a burn­ing sen­sa­tion sim­i­lar to that of a sin­gle malt.

Paso Robles in Cal­i­for­nia and Aus­tralia’s Barossa Val­ley are a cou­ple of the world’s warmer New World wine­mak­ing re­gions where 14-plus per cent al­co­hol in a red wine isn’t un­com­mon. Chilean and Ar­gen­tine reds of­ten flirt with the ex­tremes as well. Scorch­ing tem­per­a­tures and late-ripen­ing grapes like Zin­fan­del, Syrah, Mal­bec and Car­menère of­ten lead to dense reds clock­ing in up­wards of 15 per cent al­co­hol.

I’ve been in the wine in­dus­try for over 15 years and have watched al­co­hol lev­els in reds from many re­gions creep from 12 to 13 to 14 per cent al­co­hol and higher. Highly ex­tracted, hot, ag­gres­sive reds were for a time quite in style, and they typ­i­cally scored well with some of the world’s top crit­ics.

Like many wine trends, this one is start­ing to re­cede, and more wine­mak­ers are try­ing to rein in higher al­co­hol in favour of wines with bal­ance and el­e­gance. But if tem­per­a­tures in wine-pro­duc­ing re­gions continue to rise, we may find wine­mak­ers con­tin­u­ing to strug­gle with keep­ing higher al­co­hol lev­els in check.

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