The Boston Phoenix
January 13 - 20, 2000


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Proof positive

There's alcohol in wine, you know

by Thor Iverson

Back in college, a group of friends and I went camping in Maine. We gathered around our campfire, and (as college students tend to do) we started emptying bottles of wine. I don't remember what it was, or who made it, but I do remember it was bad. It didn't matter, though, because what we were after was the alcohol. Predictably, the next morning we got the chance to enjoy the wine a second time.

In the world of alcoholic drinks, wine is pretty low on the buzz-meter. Because of that, and because wine usually is sipped more contemplatively than other, more chug-worthy beverages, most people tend to forget that it even has alcohol in it. But the alcohol is crucial for two reasons. First, without alcohol wine loses a lot of its character. And second, alcohol itself is a major factor in that character.

If you've ever tasted an alcohol-free wine, you know what I mean: all the complex qualities that make wine taste like something other than grape juice are missing. Alcohol plays a major role in carrying aromas to your nasal receptors; without alcohol, the volatile aromas in wine remain in the juice.

Alcohol is also a significant part of what, in winespeak, is known as "body." By way of comparison, think about skim milk versus whole milk. The palate impression given by skim milk is light, watery, and thin compared to that of whole milk, with its higher fat content.

Much the same thing applies with low- and high-alcohol wines: the former can be light and easy to drink, and the latter can attack the palate like a tank.

Of course, whether a wine is pleasurable to drink doesn't depend just on its alcohol level, but also on how well the alcohol is balanced by other tastes. Wines with a lot of alcohol but not a lot of fruit, acidity, tannin, or sugar are known as "hot" -- they have an obvious alcoholic burn reminiscent of that in straight vodka or cognac. And low-alcohol wines can be similarly unbalanced -- they feel heavy and ponderous if the fruit isn't appropriately light. Environment also plays a role; in the winter, high-alcohol wines seem a lot more palatable than they do in the heat of summer, and light-bodied wines can easily fade into the background in January.

Wines average about 12 to 13 percent alcohol, but that number can vary considerably either way. The most popular low-alcohol wine is probably Moscato d'Asti, a delightfully sweet sparkling wine from Italy, which is no more alcoholic than beer and can be as low as five percent alcohol. Many low-cost sweet wines with prematurely arrested fermentations (which keeps the yeast from converting all the sugar to alcohol) are also low in alcohol; jug and box wines tend to fall into this category. Grapes with a lot of natural sugar, on the other hand, tend to deliver high-alcohol powerhouses. Zinfandel is the prime example here; a red zinfandel vinified with specially designed yeasts can surpass 17 percent alcohol before all the sugar is fermented away. Fortified wines -- those with spirits added to stop the fermentation, such as port and sherry -- can be even more alcoholic, often hitting 20 percent.

These days, unfortified wines are more alcoholic than ever. Part of this is due to improved viticultural techniques, which allow grapes to hang on the vine later in the season (and thus develop more sugar). Increased vineyard plantings in hot, fertile areas (most of which aren't really suitable for viticulture) have a similar effect. But the prime mover is taste; winemakers are satisfying the public's desire for big wines that deliver a big impact on the palate. In regions where this isn't naturally achievable, winemakers dump bags of sugar into juice that's about to ferment -- a process called chaptalization -- to get alcohol levels up. Unfortunately, this often results in out-of-balance wines. Worse, a lot of wines have gotten so alcoholic relative to their other elements that they're more headache-inducing that anything else, a problem that affects many white wines from California.

You can put this knowledge to use next time you're in a wine shop. When you see a chardonnay at 15 percent or 16 percent alcohol, you know you're dealing with a monster and should tread carefully. Conversely, an 11 percent Beaujolais is likely to be more of a thirst-quenching picnic wine than something to impress your wine-geek friends. And the alcohol level of an unfamiliar wine can sometimes tell you a little bit about how it might taste: light and soft, or big and full.

This week, a few recommendations (with alcohol levels included):

1997 Allegrini Valpolicella Classico ($10.99, 12 percent). The single-vineyard versions of this delicious red (La Grola and Palazzo della Torre) are favorites of mine; here's further proof that '97 made just about everything better in Italy. Red apples and roasted corn, strongly aromatic but light on the finish. Serve with white-meat dishes.

1998 El Grifo Malvasia Lanzarote "Dulce" ($14.99, 12 percent). An early contender for my 2000 wine of the year. A sweet, floral, incredibly complex white that remains light on its feet. Wet earth and lime, green apple and peppermint . . . there's so much going on, it's hard to describe. Best by itself, before or after dinner.

1997 Schoffit Chasselas "Vieilles Vignes" ($17.99, 12.5 percent). It's illegal to plant any more chasselas in Alsace, where this delicious white is from. That's too bad, because if this rich pear and orange-blossom, slightly sweet, anise-perfumed bottle is any indication, the grape is capable of great things. Serve with mildly spiced fish or chicken.

1996 Gallo of Sonoma Zinfandel Frei Ranch ($17.99, 15 percent). Chocolate, anise, and coriander heft up this blackberry bomb. It's smooth and rich, and has the stuffing to stand up to the alcohol (which, for a zin, isn't all that high). Goes great with stuff from the grill, or just your basic cheeseburger.

Thor Iverson can be reached at wine[a]

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