How high is High when it comes to alcohol in wine?

I’m snowed in – it’s great. The fridge and the wine rack are full, but not as full as the head, which is bulging with ideas, some of which you’ll become aware of soon. In the mean time, I’m doing an early spring clean. The wooden desktop is reasonably clear, but the computer desktop needs some sorting out. I’m on that at the mo, and just came across this piece I wrote about high alcohol wines a couple of years ago. In the absence of some new videos (there’ll be more when the delivery trucks can get through to Dobcross), I hope you enjoy this…


‘As a purveyor of red wines that inevitably average out at just under 14.5% alcohol, I have been at the receiving end of a growing number of (negative) comments about high alcohol.  I wouldn’t say that I feel yet like the vinous equivalent of the super-sized Big Mac, fries and soda – but I am feeling a bit sensitive about the issue.’

So writes Oscar Foulkes, Commercial Director of Cloof Wines in South Africa, in a pamphlet entitled ‘It’s Good To Be High’ that landed on my desk in October. You don’t have to search too far to find the type of comments to which he is referring. Earlier this year, Californian winemaker Randy Dunn sent a round-robin letter to hundreds of people in the US complaining about high alcohol wines. In it Dunn said, ‘Most wine drinkers do not really appreciate wines that are 15 -16+% alcohol. They are, in fact, hot and very difficult to enjoy with a meal… Influential members of the wine press have lead the score chasing winemakers/owners up the alcohol curve and now I hope that it soon will lead them down.’

Another American Darrel Corti ‘banned’ wines over 14.5% from his Sacramento store because for him (and apparently his customers), they weren’t what wine was all about. Meanwhile closer to home, Marks & Spencer predicted a drop in demand for more potent brews and announced that it was looking to source wines that were closer to 12% alcohol rather than 14%.

No surprise then for Foulkes to be a little on the defensive. But rather than give just his views in the booklet, not only did he canvass opinions from other producers around the world but he also persuaded them to send samples of their wines to wine writers interested in finding out whether Big really could be Beautiful. More about them later on, but first let’s look at where these ‘monsters’ appeared from in the first place.

Those who think of them as a purely modern phenomenon aren’t entirely correct. Alcoholic wines have been made for as long as grapes have been grown in warm places. Châteauneuf-du-Pape has never been a shrinking violet, neither has Priorat or Aglianico del Vulture. Wine history abounds with stories of wimpy wines from more northerly parts of Europe being boosted with a draft of the warm south. But what has changed in recent times is the practice of comparing wines with those from other parts of the world. As anyone who has taken part in a blind tasting will tell you, there is a very real danger of being seduced by immediacy and overlooking subtlety. If you don’t have much time to make up your mind, do you go for the one from Baywatch or the one from Crimewatch?

Not surprisingly, as riper, richer, softer wines have ‘beaten’ more anaemic and acidic competition, and attracted glowing reviews, so many winemakers, aided by several factors (global warming, improved viticulture, absence of viruses, improved technology in the cellars et al – there’s an entire series of articles in these alone) have adapted their styles accordingly. If rich and ripe (and oaky) is good for red wine, then richer and riper (and oakier) is better. And this of course has had its benefits. No longer is it necessary to wait years for wines to become drinkable. But while the ‘if some is good, then more is better’ idea is true in some cases – bank balance and happiness spring to mind – there are others where it patently isn’t – body fat and pets, for example. Moreover, there are subjects about which there is no agreement. Body hair. Number of toppings on a pizza. And alcohol levels in wine.

So one Tuesday in October, I decided to try and make up my own mind. Foulkes’s selection was just four-strong (one producer’s wines had run out) so I delved through the sample rack to see what fitted into the 14%+ category and with not much difficulty ended up with 20 wines from eight countries (see here for the full line-up). And just to see what happens with these wines as they open up (and also try and mimic the ageing process), I tasted them seven times over four days. And here are my conclusions:-

1)       Alcohol levels have no bearing on quality. This should be obvious really, but there were some lovely wines here as well as some dreadful ones.

2)     Unbalanced wines remain unbalanced. Wines with insufficient acidity will always be on the soupy side. Wines made from overripe grapes will never lose that pruney, raisinny edge. Overextraction, identifiable by a character like burnt/baked damson or blackcurrant skins, doesn’t diminish.

3)     Terroir is not negated by high alcohol. The good wines had sense of place in spades. Terroir is negated by sloppy winemaking.

4)     Age is neither good nor bad. Some of the wines that showed well initially remained in good condition throughout the four days, while others began to oxidise. Others took time to come out of their shell, or to shed some of their initial boisterousness. In particularly an Aussie Shiraz that initially was too minty suddenly calmed down on day 3.

5)     With glasses, bigger tends to be better. Standard ISO glasses tended to funnel the heat up your nose. Larger ones were more generous to the wines.

6)     Big wines don’t necessarily overwhelm food. Fish, seafood and salads may quake at the approach of a monster red, but heartier food can usually hold it’s own. However…

7)     Serving temperature is critical. High temperatures accentuate alcoholic ‘heat’ in the wines, and also bring any hints of volatility to the fore. Traditional advice is to serve beefy wines at higher temperatures than, say, red Bordeaux. I’d say the opposite. 16ºC is good. Don’t be afraid of asking for ice buckets in restaurants for your fuller reds.

If you’re looking for a pointer as to which country provides the best higher alcohol wines, I don’t have one. My three favourites were Oscar’s Cloof Lynchpin 2005, Darling (14.5%, £19.95, Leylines Shiraz 2004, South Australia (15%, £11.99 Private Cellar) and Marquesa de la Cruz Garnacha 2006, Campo de Borja (14.5%, £5.49 Tesco). A common thread? I see none apart from the fact that they brought a smile to my face. In other words, there’s nothing wrong with being seduced – providing it is by the right wine.

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3 thoughts on “How high is High when it comes to alcohol in wine?

  • Steve Gray

    I recently tried a 16% blockbuster Blackwood Ridge Pinot Noir 2008 (Naked Wines) which I thought was way too hot initially (though it did calm down the next day) I am not against “big” wines and am a fan of Cloof’s wines but I do think more can be done to at least keep the levels between 13-14%. Are you going to do any reviews of naturally lower alcohol wines?, one I have in the rack is a Peter Lehmann Barossa Semillon which at 10% is very light and refreshing, I also like Loire reds which are often a bit lighter on the booze levels without sacrificing flavour. Cheers Steve

  • Simon Post author

    Hi Steve, about to post a video of a new ‘wine’ from Torres that comes in at 0.4%. Also some Hunter Sems at 10-11%. And as for Loire reds being light, some are, but Couly Dutheil’s Chino Clos de l’Echo comes in at 15%!

  • Steve Gray

    Hi Simon, I have some of Couly Dutheil’s Domaine Rene Couly weighing in at 14.5%, but also have some Chinon’s, St Nick’s & Saumur’s that are only 12.5%, Funny re Couly Dutheil, I read somewhere that a few years back they had started to pick the grapes later to get higher % alcohol wines. Look fwd to the Torres review, 0.4% hmmmm, that sounds like grape juice!