Wine Talk

Snooth User: hhotdog

why 15% Alc. ?

Posted by hhotdog, Jul 6, 2010.

just tried Earthquake cabernet sauvignon 2006.  really enjoyed the wine.  just couldn't understand the 15% alcohol?  my first high alc. wine was Rosenblum petit syrah.  loved it but the alcohol in the 15+!?  is it not possible to get the flavors without it?

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Replies

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Reply by penguinoid, Jul 7, 2010.

Where's it from?

If it's from a really hot region, then frequently flavour ripeness does not occur until quite high sugar levels (and hence, potential alcohol) are obtained. Often, this occurs some time after the grapes are ripe in terms of having ideal pH, titratable acidity and potential alchohol levels. If flavour ripeness isn't achieved, the wine could end up tasting quite green...

Alternatively, it could have been a deliberate decision, to pick late and get high alcohol and more intense, jammy dark fruit characters.

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Reply by hhotdog, Jul 7, 2010.

penguid...lodi i believe...Micheal David also.  loved one of his petite petit vintages(petit verdot fan!)...can't remember which year off hand ..will give it more thought.  i believe it was also prety high in alc. as well?

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Reply by Andrew46, Jul 7, 2010.

Very ripe (over ripe?) fruit will yield jammy character, but the indivduality of the vineyard is washed out.  Lower acid, higher alc. wines sell well in tasting rooms, without food.  They also score well with people who give points.  Not great with food.  Probably a waste of good fruit, at least IMO. 

If you want that, drink vintage port.  Go for it!

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Reply by John Andrews, Jul 7, 2010.

I'm with Andrew on this one.  Wines that push past 15% alcohol are very hard to get balanced.  Unbalanced wines may be good as cocktails but suck with food.   

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Reply by dmcker, Jul 7, 2010.

Part of it is the locale and amount of sun/heat received by the fuit before a usually slightly-too-late harvest. Also, a number of winemaker decisions in other areas, as well, usually centered around explosively presenting that massively extracted fruit.

I grew up on wines that were 9.5% (German rieslings) to 12.8% (California 'monsters' of the day) wines, and find those reaching towards 16% these days ridiculous distortions, in almost every case. Who wants to drink hot wines past maybe a glass? As Andrew points out, nobody who cares about the match with food, etc.

Blame it partly on the Parker crowd, but mostly on New World winemaker-and-owner marketing-focused excess. I vote with my feet most of the time...

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Reply by outthere, Jul 7, 2010.

Try not to get so caught up in what it says on the label because that is only partly true as told in the following excerpt from this link: Gray Market Report - The Alcohol Challenge

"US law allows some difference between reality and the label. If a wine is less than 14% alcohol, there’s 1.5% leeway. If it’s over 14% alcohol, there’s 1% leeway. However, the label must accurately reflect which side of 14% alcohol the wine lands on.

In other words, if the label reads 13% alcohol, in reality the wine can be anywhere from 11.5 to 14%. If the label reads 14.5% alcohol, the wine can be anywhere from 14 to 15.5%. This is why so many French wines list “12.5% alcohol” on the label (actual alcohol: 11 to 14%), and why Shafer Vineyards lists all its alcohol percentages at 14.9.

I imply no cynicism here. Changing the label even in this tiny way requires lots of paperwork at both state and federal levels and costs money as well. Lee said it costs him $1,300 in licensing fees to change the alcohol level on a label from one year to the next, even if nothing else changes. So why change the label if he doesn't have to?"

What really matters in the end is if you enjoy the wine or not. Correct?

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Reply by hhotdog, Jul 7, 2010.

hey, i like the wine...just that is it not possible to get the fruit without the alc?  i drink wine with food and without food.  i'm not questoning the pairing issues. i have to admit in the 2 wines i listed the alc. wasn't too "hot".  the Rosenblum ...perhaps a bit.  it's been a few years?  love the fruit, flavors and finish.  i just don't know if i want 15+ alc. in a couple of glasses of wine at the end of a workday? who knows i may want a third glass if i really like it!  hey, on a non-"school" night...whatever.  with an everyday nice glass or two of wine it just seems it's a bit much.  12%ish isn't obtainable to get some decent fruit,flavors and finsh?  i'm no expert in any way but, is it not possible?

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Reply by penguinoid, Jul 7, 2010.

It depends on a lot of factors, including the region and the grape varieties. Colder climate regions tend to get fruit flavours and flavour ripeness at lower potential alcohol levels than hot climate regions, for example.

On the other hand, if the fruit characters you like in these wines are the rich, jammy dark fruit characters, then these do seem to have to come from very ripe grapes. And very ripe grapes means higher alcohol levels.

Ultimately, if you like the wine, I wouldn't worry too much about it being 15% rather than 13% alcohol... unless you're driving ;-)

Personally, I can't think of many wines with 15%+ alchohol I've tried that I've liked, but I think balance is more important than alcohol levels. I'm sure it would be possible to make a good wine at 15.5% alchohol, if the whole thing is balanced, and has good structure.

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Reply by Andrew46, Jul 7, 2010.

What you are most likely tasting is the softness of the wine.  It is hard to get that without very ripe fruit.  It is not really going to happen in terms of that type flavor profile.  The only way they can do it is with De-Alc.  This is a little costly, and will raise the price of the wine.  Keep in mind, 15% is only moderately high.  Some of our best pinots come in 14.5-14.9%, and we make high acid red wines compared to the rest of CA.  A lot of Zins state 16+, and some of those likely under-report.

The stuff about the info on the label being wrong is true.  The higher the stated alc., the higher the tax.  So, most of them that are wrong, under-report to save $.  I don't think it is =/-1.5%, I think it is less, but the point stands.  I will look it up in the regs.

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Reply by Gregory Dal Piaz, Jul 7, 2010.

"They also score well with people who give points.  Not great with food.  Probably a waste of good fruit, at least IMO. "

 

Well said.



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Reply by gregt, Jul 8, 2010.

And now for the opposing viewpoint. 

That particular wine is from Lodi and he makes "big" wines, meaning really ripe fruit with lots of extract.  It's what he likes.  It's possible to make an entirely different wine from the same fruit from the same vineyard.  He makes what he likes.  More ripe means more sugar in the grape, less acidity, softer tannins, and less water.  It's neither good nor bad nor does it mean a wine is better with food or worse with food or hides the terroir or reveals the terroir.

Those are all religious beliefs.  Thin green weedy sour wine tastes like crap?  Oh, just tell the rubes it's a "classic" vintage or it's a "food" wine.  Then they'll feel really sophisticated while drinking it. 

I can't think of any reason an acidic wine is a better wine with "food", as if that's a generic term for something that comes out of a can, than any other wine.  "Food" is varied and impossible to categorize.  So I never really understood the idea of one wine being better with all imaginable food than another.

But that may just be my own shallow understanding.

Also, the wine that he's making up there in Lodi most certainly reflects the terroir and the vineyard.  It would be impossible to make that wine in the Pfalz or Jura or Burgenland.  If you've ever had zinfandel from Burgenland, and I have, you realize that the Earthquake zin completely reflects its terroir.  I like Earthquake zin and their syrah.  And I have no problem whatsoever enjoying them with food - in fact I had a lot more problem enjoying the 1986 Bordeaux that I had tonight - tired, dried up, dead, or the 1999 Pegau - bretty, infected, weird and borderline undrinkable.

Doesn't mean I'm always looking for high-alc wines and frankly, I wish most of the people in CA would throttle back because I think they'd make much better wine.  Earthquake happens to be one of those that's actually pretty tasty.  Overall, in CA, their fruit is generally going to be ripe, so why push it to uber-ripe?  If the wine is balanced at 15.8 alc, I'm OK with that but not all wine remains balanced.  Nonetheless, I think nature gives them sunshine and warmth, so why not take what they have and work with that?

 

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Reply by Andrew46, Jul 8, 2010.

To be clear, I dislike obviously under-ripe fruit at least as much as obviously over-ripe.  I think one of the main problems with these higher alc wines is low acidity.  Plus, a given varietal losses individuality as if goes towards over-ripe.  We test wines and find the ones that are, to our taste overly soft, the common thread is low acidity and high pH, and not always the alc.  Some are fine at 15.8%, with enough acid.  Some are overly soft at 14.9%. 

Wine that is balanced but on the higher acid side of balance taste better with food, particularly a meal that includes meat.  At least in the blind tastings we do with and without food.  Softer wines win the pre-food tasting.  Lower alc., higher acid wines win with the meal.  Almost never does the same wine win both tastings.

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Reply by John Andrews, Jul 8, 2010.

@GregT ... good points but I think you've missed the point that others were trying to make.  Wines that are higher in alcohol are harder to get balance, not impossible but very difficult.  Often, this means the wine maker has to intervene more to get balance. 

I believe on Snooth people will call it as they see it.  If a wine is weak and weedy it'll be called out as so.  If it is overripe and jammy they'll call it that.  The question was why are there so many high alcohol wines and people have given their opinion.  In most cases (like me), I didn't mention anything about Earthquake wines because I have no experience with them.  But the wines I have had over 15% (especially pinots ... yes pinots) don't offer me much.  

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Reply by gregt, Jul 8, 2010.

Yeah.  We can't edit here but I'd probably tone down my response.  Didn't mean to seem like I was picking a fight w anyone!!

Except Andrew!

Not really, but I want to comment anyhow.

"Some are fine at 15.8%, with enough acid.  Some are overly soft at 14.9%. "

I think that's pretty true and the numbers could be more extreme - some wines are flabby in the 13s.

But the acid-food-meat thing is one thing I've never really bought into, nor the idea that bigger wines "win" blind tastings w/out food.  I do a blind tasting several times a month.  If someone is pretty much a novice, that person may respond to the bigness and softness of a high-alc super ripe wine.  It happens in non-blind tastings that I do for the general public. 

But not always, and certainly not with more experienced people.  In fact, more often the bigger wine just seems clumsy. 

If you add food to the equation, you can overcome some of those deficiencies by killing the taste or alcohol or at least rounding them off a bit with something strong, which actually makes those wines pretty good food matches.   You don't get a wine into balance if it's out of balance to start, that's for sure.  But you may help the wine appear better by dressing it up and putting on some make-up so to speak. 

I say it sarcastically, but I do believe that to a large degree the whole concept of "food wine" has been something that was relatively recently created by people with a particular viewpoint that they wished to advance.  If you look at writings from the 60s, 70s, 80s and even the 90s, the phrase didn't really come up - it was assumed that wine was consumed with food sometimes and used as an apertif other times.  Quite honestly, I haven't done any detailed research, but I've read a few older "guides" to food and wine recently, mostly for curiosity, and I just never saw anything like that.

One can argue that there was no need to make a distinction back then, but I'm not sure that's true at all.  There were some pretty ripe wines coming out of CA and France, and while they were made in Spain they may not have been exported but they were consumed with food there.  Sherry is an extreme example - high alcohol and completely out of whack to most people.  Port is usually served with nibbles. So I think what happened is that partly in response to popular wine critics in the US, partly in response to one trend in CA that pushed for ever-bigger wine, and partly in response to a very successful assault on the world wine market by the Australians, some people who saw their favorite areas getting overshadowed came up with various strategies and terms to argue with.

Again, this is just my extremely simplistic viewpoint, but I think those early arguments centered on Bordeaux and Burgundy and then spread to other parts of the world, creating the distinction between "new world" and "old world".  So you have people who get called traditionalists, champions of the old world, Rioja Taliban, non-interventionists, "natural" wine lovers, anti-globalization champions, and whatever.  Parker calls them the "anti flavor elite". 

I don't think it's good, I don't think it's sensible, I don't think it's true and I don't think wine should be polarizing. 

Had dinner w some friends last night and the wines were from all over the spectrum and every one was interesting in its own way.  83 Dow that started things, then 95 Ridge Montebello, an 86 Gruaud Larose, 1990 Pichon Lalande, 2005 San Roman, chardonnay from NZ and from CA, a crappy Pegau, a couple of other things I can't remember and I brouight a cremant from Jura and 78 RIoja.  The wine with the most apparent acidity and which would likely be considered the most food-friendly was the one we had as an after dinner drink - the Rioja. The bigger wines went better with the dinner.

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Reply by Stephen Harvey, Jul 8, 2010.

The debate is quite interesting to read and many good points made.

From an Australian perspective many of our winemakers got seduced by the very high ratings that RP Jnr gave out to very high alcohol wines and seduced by the impact of high RP ratings on the $US people were willing to shell out for those wines they tried to engineer high alcohol shiraz, particularly in the Barossa Valley where extreme heat is no stranger to a vintage [days of over 40deg C are not uncommon]

The problem as many of us here see it is that in some of our hotter vintages you can relatively easily produce excellent wines in the 14.5% to 15.5% range.  These wines will have excellent primary fruit flavour and will age well.  Unfortunately too many winemakers have tried to engineer high alcohol by late picking shiraz and this is where the risk of stewed plum/raisin over cooked hot flavours is very high.

Further, too the dismay of these winemakers the wines look very big and fruit driven early but fall apart in the bottle after a few short years.

The lesson for most here is that they should allow the grapes to reach their optimum ripeness based on weather conditions and if that produces a high sugar level and therefore higher alcohol level then so be it, but if we have cooler vintages like 1998 and 2002 then be prepared to produce shiraz that is a little more in line with cooler climate style.

I have compared many of my favourite Barossa shirazes and they can be excellent wines at 13% to 14.5% and equally good at 15% to 16% - over 16% I have only on rare occasions found a really great wine

As many have commented it is about balance and that is the winemakers challenge get the balance right and don't ignore the basics of winemaking 101 to chase ratings

 

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Reply by gregt, Jul 9, 2010.

Really interesting post, partly because I think the Barossa 1998 was wonderful.  I opened one the other day with friends - Peter Lehman;s  the Mentor - and it was wonderful - aging, maturing, but still obviously from great fruit.

But I'm not clear - if the 1998 and 2002 were cool vintages, why would someone pick late in other vintages that would have been warm?  Wouldn't the late picking be in 1998 or 2002?

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Reply by Stephen Harvey, Jul 9, 2010.

Greg

1998 and 2002 were cool in terms of Barossa and South Australian in general, in that we did not have any lengthy heatwaves [eg in 2008 we had 15 days in a row over 35 Deg C and at least 10 of those over 40 with 3 over 45, with night temps staying aboive 30, in early March when shiraz was about to be harvested].  The summers were more what we describe as Indian Summers with long periods of 25-35 with virtually no peaks above 35 and mild evenings 15-25.

The issue around late harvest was more that many winemakers believed that by leaving the grapes on the vines longer than "normal" would allow for concentration of fruit intensity and that mixed with higher alcohol produced a "super" wine capbale of achieving cult status by getting a Parker 99+ rating.  Unfortunatley all most achieved was overcooked fruit which produced wines with the stewed plum/raisin flavour backed by a very hot high alcohol mouthfeel

Yes the mild vintages were harvested later but that was only because the mild weather produced a slower ripening cycle.  Therefore the winemakers who picked these grapes at the optimum time were able to produce outstanding wines because the balance of all components was there.

2002 was particularly mild and produced many wines which were outstanding but not necessarily typical for the Barossa.

Hope this helps explain my perspective better

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Reply by dmcker, Jul 9, 2010.

Greg, I'm curious: what order did you drink those wines in from 'last night'?

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Reply by Stephen Harvey, Jul 9, 2010.

Greg

98 Lehmann Mentor is a great wine, from memory it is a shiraz,cabernet, malbec and something else blend

you are correct 98 was outstanding for Barossa and most of Australia.  The "Super Premium" 98's are all drinking brilliantly and the Coonawarra Cabernets are right at their peak at the moment and for the real ultra premiums still plenty of legs left in them

Unless the tried to hard to Parkerise the wine although this seemed to happen post 2000

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Reply by chadrich, Jul 9, 2010.

I am neither a chemist nor a winemaker, but think the point I'm about to make is correct (and really just another version of a lot that's been said above)....

A portion of the decision on alcohol level lies with the winemaker.  But a portion also is dictated by the location, the weather and the grapes.  To the earlier question about this particular wine and whether it couldn't have been made at 12% alcohol, I feel pretty confident that the answer is "no".  Or at least not without intervention such as dealcaholization, etc.  While there is a ripeness window during which the winemaker can pick the grapes and therefore some fluctuation it the sugar level and its resulting alcohol, I"d suspect that's in a narrower band (say 14% to 16% for this wine in this particular year). 

Now, that gets me off on another topic (perhaps for another thread), which is what a winemaker can and should do to "modify" a wine.  I'm sure I drink lots of wines that have been modified and don't even realize it.  But if asked, I'd say that I don't believe a wine should be "artificially" altered (ie please do not add or remove acid, tannin, alcohol thru chemical means).  Allow the wine to express the conditions that weather and circumstances provided in the particular geogrpahy in the particular year.  (I realize if I was trying to make a living producing and selling wine, my views might change on this topic).  I'd even advocate the use of natural yeasts and vote for no fining and filtering.  But I digress and ramble.....

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