Wine Talk

Snooth User: Mark Angelillo

Why are some wines so alcoholic?

Posted by Mark Angelillo, Sep 19, 2011.

Okay, so this is not news, and it's been discussed on the forum before. In the spirit of GDP's new rants, I figured I'd throw mine out there as well. I've seen too many hangovers caused by misjudged pacing due to wild variations in alcohol content.

Mostly this is difficult in restaurants. If we're shopping in stores we can check the label easily enough.

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Reply by EMark, Sep 19, 2011.

Why all the ranting about the alcohol in wine?

Not picking on you, Mark, but this is my rant.

I first heard the "California wine has too much alcohol" gripe about a dozen years ago from one of my wife's old professors.  (He, she and me have all, since, retired.)  When I first started drinking wine, I don't think that the ABV (Anyone but Vettel?) was required to be printed on the label.  It seemed to be a U.S. thing, but I don't recall seeing it on French wines.  Currently, of course, U.S. law requires that it be printed on all wines sold here.  I'm OK with that information, but I am never going to make a buying decision based on it.  I open a bottle, and I taste it.  If I taste alcohol, I taste alcohol.  If I don't taste it, then I don't taste it.  I have an unsophisiticated palate, and I have found that my taste experience does not correlate very well with the printed ABV on the label--wines that I have thought were "hot" had an ABV of 13%, and wines I thought were balanced had an ABV of 15.5%.  (I'm not always wrong.  Sometimes I get it right.  So, while there is no correlation, there is also no negative correlation.) 

For what it's worth, a few months ago on one of the Snooth Forums I posted that one of the greatest wines I have ever had was a David Bruce Zinfandel.  This was in the late 70s, and my recollection is that it was a late '60s (maybe early '70s) vintage.  I know I held on to that bottle for 5 or 6 years before we opened it.  The label on that sucker indicated an ABV of over 17%.  We had it with cheeses and sliced apples after the main course of our meal.  It was awesome.

On the other end of the scale, I do also enjoy Mosels and Vinho Verdes which tend to be low alcohol.

I'm afraid I do not have much sympathy for people getting hangovers.  I've been there and done that.  And I know who to blame for it.

Reply by Mark Angelillo, Sep 19, 2011.

My favorite wines in the past year have been mellow on the alcohol. Most of my worst hangovers have been after those wonderful whiskey nights. Wine rarely bothers me.

However some folks are just not built like you and me, EMark. I'm usually able to avoid the hangover as well (and when I don't I definitely kick myself), but others are not, except by abstaining from tasting any unknown quantities. Where's the fun in that?

I've seen hangovers creep in for my girlfriend after 2 glasses of wine when she easily took 3-4 glasses of a different bottle on a different night. Maybe that's also due to impurities in the first wine? It's tough to tell - which is maybe what I'm after here.

I'm not against California wine, by the way. I would probably say something like "wine with too much alcohol has too much alcohol".

It's really just in restaurants though. In the store, as I said, I can check. Does anyone ask the server about ABV in wines purchased by the glass? I'd feel pretty silly doing that, but if I must do that I'll do it.

Reply by dmcker, Sep 19, 2011.

Not sure, too, how much difference there's going to be between a 12.5% and 14% wine in terms of drunks and hangovers. Same liquid volume of beers and wines, I'll go along with, and wines and distilled liquors, of course, but just within unfortified wines does seem like a bit of hair splitting and a fairly lame excuse. Drink several bottles of wine and a hangover's a fairly logical occurence. As EMark so rightly states, only one person to blame for that.

For me the problem is more one of the wine's balance, and it drinking overly hot....

Reply by 1 jayjay, Sep 19, 2011.

WE have a saying in these part

"You need to be sober to have a hangover"

if you are at a restaurant you can always ask the wine waiter if he is worth his wages he will be only to glad to help. I can always tell from the first sip how strong a wine is and know if i should neck it or not

Reply by Kristin Watts, Sep 19, 2011.

 I agree that it is usually  the case that you can gauge alcohol level from the first sip...however, at the Jorge Ordonez portfolio tasting last week, I tasted the 2006 Bodegas Alto Moncayo Aquilon Garnacha. One sip and it was utterly smooth and fruity and I guess you could even say "light" on the palette. Only after that first sip I found out alcohol level was 16.7%... 

Good wine has a way of fooling us by keeping its alcohol a secret :)

Reply by ScottLauraH, Sep 20, 2011.

I don't care about the alcohol volume of my wines, I only care if they are balanced and taste good. 

I agree with the others who have stated that a hangover is only one person's fault....  If you're going to drink wine and hope to avoid a hangover, you must pay attention to your body's cues.  Drink slowly enough that you don't go from sober to drunk in one glass.  If you feel thirsty, drink some water.  If you know you've had a good bit of wine, drink a nice big glass of water or gatorade before bed, and maybe pop an advil or two. 

Reply by JonDerry, Sep 20, 2011.

Just got the latest offer from Shafer and balked a bit at the 08 Relentless being 15.6%, and the Merlot 15.1% Oh well, I guess i'll just have to serve them a little on the cool side. 

Incidentally, I had a real nice CA cabernet last night, Round Pond 2007 for around $45 upon release.  Held for about a year and opened last night at a restaurant.  The first half was great and even my dad enjoyed it (it's kind of delicious), though as the temperature rose, the alcohol came out and it became more interesting than enjoyable, and by the last half glass you just didn't want anymore unless you were trying to get drunk. Was too late to request it be cooled down, and there were desert wines besides.

Reply by GregT, Sep 20, 2011.

Just tasted the Shafer lineup about an hour ago. All high alc but lots of tannin and structure too. As others have said, it's about balance. Sometimes you're surprised at how low the alc number is, sometimes at how high it is. For me, I don't like alcohol for it's own sake.  So I don't drink whiskey or any spirits at all. If I taste the alc in wine, I consider it a flawed wine. 

In answer to the OP, I think it comes to the skill of the winemaker and the grapes the vintage produced. Given my druthers, I'd pick the lower alc wine if everything else was equal.  But I'd go w a higher alc but more balanced wine than a lower alc unbalanced wine.d

Still - that's not to imply that there has not been a stylistic shift for some producers.  In CA to be sure, but also in France, Italy, and elsewhere. Pahlmeyer for example, produced one of the great Merlots and great Cab blends in the 1990s.  I find it nearly undrinkable today.  It's usually over 15%, whereas it used to be in the low 14s.  It's got an acetone note that I find offputting, and it's sweet at the same time.  They don't have the same vineyards or the same winemaker, but it's a pretty generic bad CA wine these days IMO. I guess I'd focus on the alcohol because that's easy, but the overall wine is completely different too.

Reply by dmcker, Sep 20, 2011.

My opinion dittos Gregs on recent vs. older Pahlmeyer offerings. One of the unfortunately all-to-common results of buyouts (as in 'sellouts') in the wine industry, as well as others.

I also ditto him on balance. Alcohol shouldn't be immediately obvious. It's an element in the mix that might become increasingly obvious the more you drink if it weren't for the fact that your judgments tend to get increasingly impaired over that process. But it should be melded into a balance, and not upfront....

Reply by JonDerry, Sep 20, 2011.

Great to hear the good words on the latest Shafer release...Relentless, Merlot, and of course Hillside Select are my faves.  Haven't found a One Point Five worth the money yet, and their Chards i've tried have been over-oaked.

Reply by napagirl68, Sep 21, 2011.


I can say that winemakers LIE on their ETOH content.  It is a taxation issue here in CA. And they hope they do not get tested and fined.  Taxation based on ETOH level is levied on a monthy schedule.

That said, I can say one thing... certain areas/vintages inebriate me way faster than others; regardless of the "stated" ETOH content:  

1. RRV chards.. I'm gone.. even if it only stated at 14%; 

2.  central coast big pinots 14.x ETOH.  These make me WASTED and I don't know why. 

These are the two varietals/regions I have to be VERY careful with.  I don't know why.. Perhaps they are high in etoh (beyond that stated) or a reaction with another thing local to those areas.  All I know is it works like clockwork... only 1-2 glasses, or I feel like I have had 10!

Reply by zufrieden, Sep 21, 2011.

Hmmm.  It all seems to depend on exactly what effect one seeks.  Mark, I hear you on the headiness of some wines and I will admit that I avoid certain alcoholic fruit bombs, whether balanced or not, if I need to retain my faculties after a few glasses.  After all, one glass is never enough - if you choose your tipple with an eye to quality - and who knows?  You just might want to converse coherently.  And then there is the morning after crapulence to consider.

Also, contrary to a couple of comments made in this drifting and meandering thread, I find  that those 16% ABV still wines usually stand out in a crowd - sort of like muscle-bound beach vagabonds.  Not that such a beauty is to be spurned at all times, but a little care is needed if a serious round of drinking is on the agenda.

Reply by ScottLauraH, Sep 22, 2011.

@Napagirl, so you're saying that the stated alcohol content on a lot of California wines is often higher than what is stated?  A lot of them seem high to me anyway, in comparison to other areas.  That being said, Orin Swift Cellars is a current favorite producer of mine, and most of the wine is about 15%ABV.  Alcohol isn't an issue for me as long as the wine is balanced and I drink slowly. 

Reply by napagirl68, Sep 22, 2011.
Edited Sep 22, 2011

@scottlauraH:  yes, that is what I am saying.  As you can imagine, there is some wiggle room,  since there may be some variations.  But in CA (perhaps US, not sure), all wines that a winery has in their stock is taxed monthly.  And taxation level is based on ETOH content.  Ck out this article.. it is a common phenomenon:

That said, it in no way explains why RRV chards and central coast pinots go to my head very fast... even just having a few glasses and going slow.  I drink a lot of Rhones from Paso Robles where the ETOH is often stated as 16%.  I have no problem with this, as the wines I prefer are balanced, and I do not taste the ETOH as overwhelming.  So my little idiosyncrasy is just that... who knows what causes it!!!  Perhaps an allergy to something?  The RRV chard thing is pretty much across the board for me, and I have no idea why.  I actually have had to stop purchasing them because of this. And I feel horrible the next morning.  The Central CA pinot issue is not a hard one, as I don't really like that area for pinot much.  They tend to be more purple and overdone.  No love lost there.  But the RRV chard thing BUGS me...

Reply by JonDerry, Sep 22, 2011.

I've often thought about how arbitrary it is on paper, say the difference between a 12.5% and a 15% wine is really only a 20% increase in alcohol content.  In the wine world, it seems like 12's, 13's, 14's, and 15's have different personalities, and maybe they do but it doesn't seem right. 

By contrast, if you have a beer drinker going from a 3.2 light beer, to a standard 5%, that's over a 50% increase and really not that difficult a transition for most to go from bud light to heineken.  Go from a light beer to a belgium beer, and you could be in the 300% range real fast. 

Maybe as wine drinkers, were listening and searching so much for what we're tasting, these small differences in alcohol scream out to our senses. Though as we have already resolved, balance usually trumps the alcohol content, and that if you're tasting alcohol at all, it's a mistake.

Reply by napagirl68, Sep 22, 2011.

JD... a 20% increase doesn't sound like much, but biologically it is.  Especially if you drink more than one glass (now you have to compound that number based on sex, weight, health factors).  And I think most of us have more than one glass...

Reply by zufrieden, Sep 23, 2011.

Hmmmm again.  The reference to beer is a useful one; I often try to pawn off 3.5% ale on the unsuspecting during sprots events, but the grousing is predictable: many do not like the unconverted organics in such beverages and prefer the 4.5 to 6 per cent premium ales that I sometimes offer - when not expecting to drive myself home.  So the relationship to flavor is a real one.  More discussion on this would be welcomed.

Reply by jdubcali, Sep 24, 2011.

I have to chime in that my husband & I search out those wines with lower ABV, like old world French wines that are 12.5% because we like to sit down to dinner and split a bottle.  Neither of us are big people, but we're not lightweights either -- but splitting a bottle of 15% something-or-other puts us both in the weeds.  I like to drink wine - not just slowly sip a single glass.  I like the slight headiness I get from a few glasses of wine, but I want to be able to have those few glasses without then having to stumble to bed!

Now taste is a totally other story - I abhor 'hot' wines that taste of alcohol.  If I want liquor, I'll drink liquor.  I drink wine for the taste of the soil, of the terrior and of the fruit.  Not alcohol and not a big fruit or oak bomb on my tongue.  This, of course, is my own personal tastes and opinion.

So if I have to choose between two unknown bottles, one @ 13% and one @ 15%, I will always choose the 13%'er.

Oh, and in restaurants, I've found sommeliers are more and more cued in to the ABV of their wines, and if you explain your tastes they are happy to grab bottles and check them out for you.  We've had many a lively discussion with our servers over winemaking techniques and wine drinkers tastes due to asking the ABV question.

Reply by ScottLauraH, Sep 24, 2011.

NG, thanks for the article link.  I was completely ignorant to the fact that tax rates were linked to alcohol content.  That definitely explains the desire to mislabel the alcohol content of your wine....

I am finding it interesting to read about other's alcohol sensitivies as it relates to beer, wine and liquor.  For me, beer is likely to affect me MUCH faster than wine, even though it has a much lower alcohol content.  (And if it's draft beer, forget it, I'm gone after two glasses.)  Liquor and wine I can control by drinking at a steady pace and making sure that I have eaten and hydrated adequately. 

Reply by JonDerry, Sep 24, 2011.

From what I understand, not only could taxation be a factor in mis-printing wine labels, but they are often an educated guess as the alcohol content is usually still evolving at the time the artwork is made for the wine labels, and that all wineries are responsible for being no more than 1% inaccurate (they're allowed a 1% deviation due to this timing issue).  This info is all taken from Shafer vineyards in Napa, so i'm not sure what differences there are in laws out of state or different countries.

Zuf - The 3.5% is a smart move if you can get away with it.  I would equate light beer to traditional wine styles or even lighter (10-12%), and standard 5% beer similar to around 14% for wine, while there really is no equal in the wine world for those belgium bombs and some of the IPA's that flirt with or even exceed 10%.

Along with the higher alcohol levels in belgium beers and 15+% wine, we know that there's usually more sugar that comes with it. Maybe this would help explain the feeling people get after only 2-3 glasses of higher alcohol wines.  There really shouldn't be much of an alcohol impact after only a half bottle or so.

On paper and speaking strictly in terms of alcohol, your taking in a little more alcohol by drinking 5 glasses of 12.5% wine, than you would after 4 glasses of 15% wine.

I'm starting to think sugar could have more of an impact on the "crashing" effects of higher alcohol wines than the alcohol itself.

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