Yes, it’s an emotive word; stark even when used as an injunction: ‘not for sale to persons under 18’; ‘alcohol is a killer; don’t drink and drive’. But without alcohol, brandy, whisky, tequila, rum, all number of other spirits and, of course, wine, wouldn’t be what they are; alcohol is integral to their being. It’s even found in some medications and mouthwashes! If we are of a legal age to consume alcohol, we’re urged to use it in moderation, when it’s mentioned on radio (and I guess TV) but despite alcohol being .. well, alcohol in whatever liquid it is found, it is a strange substance, providing diverse reactions at the same volume percent in different drinks.

With my lunch yesterday, I enjoyed two smallish glasses of a very fine, mouthwateringly dry Lustau Puerto Fino Sherry at 15% alcohol. It was brisk, bright, nothing heavy or tiring, nor did I feel any after effects. It was also the perfect complement to my Salmajero.Fino Salmarejo
Yet three red wines I’ve opened the past few evenings to go with our evening meal, two of which claimed on the label 14% and 14.5% (the third bore only a sticky sample label) had a very different impact.

It’s with the reds that this whole train of thought started. Well, to go back to the very beginning, which was at last year’s tasting of ten year old whites and reds, ie 2005. We were all pretty disappointed with the reds in particular, which were heavy and alcohol-dominant, even when they had obviously been vinified with care. It was, like this year, hot and dry though with one or two ill-timed downpours. Sugars were high, but good ferments also ensured high alcohols, many out of synch with the rest of the wine.

We fell to pondering what 2006 would be like 10 years on, my colleague, Christian Eedes, one of the tasters present, said he felt it was an underrated vintage. It was the year of the infamous power cuts, which caught many on the hop and generator sales were humming. We were still in a drought cycle, but irrigation had become much more sophisticated and, aided by cool night-time temperatures, the wines were notable for pure flavours, freshness and ‘many claim, slightly lower alcohol than in recent years.’ I wrote in a harvest report.
It wasn’t a year I bought into very widely but I did find a Kanonkop Paul Sauer (surprise, surprise!), which was a delight, reflecting the flavour, freshness and lower alcohol mentioned above – just 13% on the label. Ten years on it had the dimension that develops with tertiary flavours and plenty more in store.

The evening before I’d opened a Constantia Glen Five 2009 (all five Bordeaux varieties and a highly touted vintage); beautifully crafted … but its 14.5% alc (as per the label, which could mean as high as 15% or as low as 14%) put a damper on what promised to be an excellent wine, the power of that alcohol simply didn’t allow full expression of the flavours. I find it difficult to imagine further ageing being of benefit.

The same was true for a pair of 05s I subsequently tried: Vergelegen flagship red and Thelema Cabernet. You’ll appreciate this pair are among the top echelon of Cape producers. The Vergelegen bore just a sticky label (as a leftover from a Platter tasting) so no note of alcohol but probably in the same area as Thelema’s 14%. If neither was over the hill, neither gave as much pleasure as they do in a less extreme year. I seem to remember the Thelema came out as the best of our 2005 bunch last year; those extra 12 months haven’t done it much favour.

Two things this little exercise has reminded me. First, that balance is all, whatever the alcohol level, though I’m sure 13% has more to offer than 14%-plus, all else being equal. Then alcohol needs to be appropriate to the style of wine. That delicious Fino is perfect at 15%, a lower strength than used to be the norm for the style and all the better for it. It is beautifully integrated in this perfectly balanced wine. Whereas I was quite able to work after a glass with lunch. I know for sure a glass of those 14-14.5% reds would have seen me taking 40 winks.

As with the call for ‘Moderation in consumption’, so should we be encouraging more winemakers to achieve moderation in alcohol strength.


One thought on “Alcohol

  1. Of course, I agree entirely, Angela; happily more and more winemakers do too; there’s been so much discussion of this matter. Jancis Robinson, for example, now mentions the alcohol level for all wines she reviews – I wish Platter would do the same. My one additional point would be that looking specifically at residual sugar levels is of great relevance here. You point out that the sherry you had was mouthwateringly dry. It would have been virtually totally dry, in fact, like all undoctored flor sherries. The situation could have been vastly different with some of the reds you mention. A great many warm-country reds (not only Cape ones) have residual sugar levels of at least 2 grams per litre, and many would be a gram more than this. This, together with a big alcohol, often makes for an unfresh, often sweetish heaviness, however much acidification has been done. If a big, bold wine is very dry (preferably well under 2 g/l) it can make all the difference, I find, to its drinkability.

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