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Al­co­hol and wine, what you need to know

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Al­co­hol and wine, what you need to know

When I lis­ten to peo­ple talk about al­co­hol and wine, it is as­ton­ish­ing to hear the many mis­con­cep­tions be­tween the two. So, let’s look at the ba­sics, how it all starts: Wine comes from grapes but grapes do not have al­co­hol, so how do they be­come al­co­holic? Sim­ple, grapes have sugar, and through a chem­i­cal process called fer­men­ta­tion (ac­tu­ally more like 40 dif­fer­ent chem­i­cal pro­cesses going out to­gether as the re­sult of yeast and oxy­gen), sugar is con­verted into al­co­hol.

The al­co­hol lev­els are usu­ally de­ter­mined at fer­men­ta­tion, and they stay like that for most of the wines (for­ti­fied wines fol­low other pro­cesses, for ex­am­ple). And if you are won­der­ing, not all grapes have the same sugar lev­els in them; again many fac­tors—like ripeness, ex­po­sure to the sun, grape type, har­vest time be­fore/af­ter be­ing ripe—will de­ter­mine how much sugar grapes have.

Al­co­hol is the back­bone of wine and with­out it wine would not ex­ist, or keep alive, it would just be­come juice that would rot.

Wine gets its taste and smell through three dif­fer­ent fac­tors: the par­tic­u­lar grapes used to make the wine, known as pri­mary; fer­men­ta­tion, known as sec­ondary, and ag­ing, known as ter­tiary. One of the mis­con­cep­tions is that al­co­hol evap­o­rates when you age the wine, es­pe­cially old wines, and this is far from true. Although you may per­ceive the al­co­hol less in older wines, this is be­cause the ter­tiary smells have de­vel­oped fur­ther with time, and some­times hide those from fer­men­ta­tion like al­co­hol.

Some peo­ple, es­pe­cially men in Asian coun­tries, think that the more al­co­hol the bet­ter the wine. But such af­fir­ma­tion has more to do with their child­ish ap­proach to show how ma­cho (stupid) they are for drink­ing high lev­els of al­co­hol than with wine qual­ity; if that is your case move to ab­sinthe or bour­bon. Al­co­hol in wine, like acid and other com­po­nents, has to be at the right lev­els for the wines to give the best they can of­fer both now and with time.

For ex­am­ple, Bordeaux and Rioja wines are around 13 or 13.5%, known as some of the best world wines, some oth­ers like Amarone are usu­ally around 15%, while Chi­anti can be closer to 12% than it is to 14%. A cou­ple of per­cent­age points more or less will not make wine, in gen­eral, bet­ter or worse.

An­other myth is that when you open a bot­tle of wine, al­co­hol evap­o­rates. When you do, the contact with air will start dif­fer­ent chem­i­cal re­ac­tions, and some al­co­hol and wa­ter will in­deed evap­o­rate, but in such small amounts that you would need weeks for it to be no­tice­able.

If you look at sta­tis­tics, gen­er­ally speak­ing, cur­rent al­co­hol lev­els in wine are higher now than 40 years ago. There are many rea­sons for that, per­haps the prin­ci­pal one is trend, but also some ex­perts blame cli­mate change for it: the warmer the weather, the more sug­ars in the grapes that are con­verted to al­co­hol dur­ing fer­men­ta­tion.

Al­fredo de la Casa has been or­ga­niz­ing wine tast­ings for over 20 years and has pub­lished three wine books, in­clud­ing the Gour­mand award win­ner for best wine ed­u­ca­tion book. You can reach him at

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