All About Alcohol
Wine would be downright dull without alcohol. Too much alcohol, however, can overpower a wine’s beauty, not to mention our own. A wine’s alcohol level is dictated by grape maturity. As grapes ripen, their sweetness levels increase making them irresistible confectionary treats for birds and animals. Fermentation yeasts also have a sweet-tooth, and after the grapes are harvested the little gluttons gobble up the juice’s sugars converting them to alcohol.
Alcohol levels tell you about a wine’s origin: in cooler climates, such as Germany, northern Italy and France’s Loire Valley, grapes find it difficult to ripen, so their sugar content is quite low; in hotter wine regions, such as the Barossa Valley, Napa Valley or Southern Italy, grapes accumulate very high sugar levels. Thus, cooler countries produce wines lower in alcohol content while warmer countries produce wines with higher alcohol levels.
Alcohol in itself has no taste, but it is important because it helps carry aromas and flavors to our nose and olfactory sensors. Another characteristic of alcohol is that it adds weight or body to wine. Unfortunately it adds weight to our own bodies as well.
Some cool climate wine regions, such as Burgundy, have an acute case of alcohol-envy, so winemakers commonly boost their wine’s alcohol by adding ordinary table sugar to the grape juice before it begins to ferment. This alcohol enrichment technique is called chaptalization. Few winemakers willingly admit they make use of this clever trick, but if visiting during harvest, one can trip over the bags of sugar in many cellars, especially in cooler years.
Other wine regions embrace alcohol enthusiastically. In Portugal’s Douro Valley, neutral alcohol spirits are added directly to grape juice a few days after it begins to ferment. Like most of us on a Saturday night, yeasts can tolerate only so much alcohol before passing out. Winemakers douse the semi-fermented grape juice with alcohol in order to stop the yeast from slurping up all the grape sugars. The result is Port, a highly alcoholic wine balanced by residual grape sweetness.
A wine’s alcohol balance can best be judged by evaluating the warmth in your mouth after swallowing, especially at the back of the throat. Take a sip of wine and then exhale. Appraise the warmth or coolness of your breath as you exhale: the warmer the sensation, the higher the alcohol. Wines with high alcohol levels can be described as hot or powerful and have the effect of boosting a meal’s spicy character – and maybe your date’s as well.
It is important to consider alcohol levels when selecting a wine because there is a vast difference in the effects of a bottle of Riesling from Germany’s Mosel Valley (7-9% alcohol) and a hefty Zinfandel from California’s Dry Creek Valley (15-16%). Cool climate wines are a prudent choice for serious business lunches or afternoon receptions. Save higher alcohol wines for late evenings with good friends. If you slept through your geography lessons and are at a loss as to whether a climate is warm or cool, simply remember this: cool mouth, cool deal. Hot mouth, hot date.