Tuesday, August 5, 2008

High level of alcohol in wine is getting out of hand

Alcohol is a ratings driver: easy, seductive, showy and impressive. What’s not to love? That it’s impressive for just about a minute, and then it’s also thick, sticky, heavy, overbearing, overripe, bitter, cloying, sweaty and the enemy of food and wine pairing. I hate it.

I know how important it is. To get an idea, taste one of the “non-alcoholic” wines. They are flat and insipid. Alcohol in wine provides body weight and, to an extent, richness. But in the pretzel logic of today’s wine making, the “more must be good” theory has gotten out of hand Balance and harmony in all the wine’s components are critical to its longevity, to its success with food and to your enjoyment of it. When out of balance, the alcohol becomes a negative contribution that kills flavor and numbs taste buds. Simultaneously, it acquires a hot and spicy taste with food - not attractive.

A reason behind the increasingly high alcohol contents in today’s wines is that most winemakers are looking for extreme ripeness. The benefits are twofold. The results please judges - when wines are judged at a blind tasting, the higher-alcohol wine with more extraction and ripeness stands out. Even more importantly, it makes a well-made but lower-alcohol wine appear thin and lackluster.

The other benefit is that these wines please consumers. The world market first was shifted toward these richer, bigger wines by Napa and then perfected to a degree by Australia. Wine drinkers like them on the first sip and on the second sip and, sometimes, forever. They are lush, easy to understand and ripe to the point of being sweet.

Alcohol is not a total enemy of taste. A wine can have up to 14 percent alcohol if the other components - tartness, fruit extract and concentration - are in perfect balance. If there’s too much alcohol, it comes over the top of the flavor profile to annihilate the rest of these nuances.

It also will numb the palate. It’s very much like the way the sugar in ice cream affects you after the second or third spoonful. In extreme examples, the back of the mouth gets a hot sensation and sweat pours from your brow! Most folks push this wine away after a couple of sips or, at the most, a glass. Even salty, savory potato chips have sugar added, and it seems that alcohol is the sugar of the wine world - cheap to produce and depended upon to please.

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