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why do some wines taste so strongly of alcohol?

And I'm not just talking about high alcohol wines. I had a Barbera today (13.5%) that when I first caught a whiff smelled more like a shot of vodka and it barely settled down later.

This seems to happen once in a while I just wonder if there's a rhyme or reason to this? Are there certain varieties where this is more common or certain wine-makers?

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  1. Depends on the wine. We have had many Aussie shiraz that have been the same way, but what we have found is that the alcohol integrates over time as the wine ages. Granted, this is not always true, but it has been common in some younger, higher alcohol wines.

    Decanted seems to help at times as well, and sometimes it integrates with time in the decanter, as well as time in the glass.

    To me, really depends on the wine I think. Haven't run across this with any Barbera, or any Italian come to think of it.

    Just out of curiosity, what was the wine, and what vintage? -mJ

    1. Wondering if it might have been from the SUPER-hot vintage of 2003? I've noticed that alcohol overtone in many European wines of that vintage that wouldn't normally have it

      1. Just a thought... that 13.5% on the bottle could be 14.25%

        I read a recent study of 4 bottles showing that the actual ABV varied from the bottle by almost a percentage point. Cant find the article or the link, but maybe WS??

        1 Reply
        1. re: chrisinroch

          Federal regulations state that IF a table wine is below 14.00 percent ABV, the number must be accurate +/- within 1.5 percent, BUT with a "hard ceiling" of 14.00 -- meaning that a bottle labeled 12.0% ABV can, in fact, contain anywhere from 10.5-13.5%, but that a bottle labeled 13.5% ABV will, in fact, be anywhere from 12.0% on the low side to 14.0% on the high side.

          Federal regulations state that IF a table wine is ABOVE 14.01 percent ABV, the number must be accurate +/- within 1.0 percent, BUT with a "hard floor" of 14.00 -- meaning that a bottle labeled 15.5% ABV can, in fact, contain anywhere from 14.5-16.5%, but that a bottle labeled 14.5% ABV will, in fact, be anywhere from 14.0% on the low side to 15.5% on the high side.

          or . . . see: http://www.atf.gov/regulations/27cfr4...

          Title 27, Code of Federal Regulations, Part 4 "Labeling and Advertising of Wine"

          §4.36 Alcoholic content.
          (a) Alcoholic content shall be stated in the case of wines containing more than 14 percent of alcohol by volume, and, in the case of wine containing 14 percent or less of alcohol by volume, either the type designation "table" wine ("light" wine) or the alcoholic content shall be stated. Any statement of alcoholic content shall be made as prescribed in paragraph (b) of this section.
          (b) Alcoholic content shall be stated in terms of percentage of alcohol by volume, and not otherwise, as provided in either paragraph (b)(1) or (2) of this section:
          (1) "Alcohol ___ % by volume," or similar appropriate phrase; Provided, that if the word "alcohol" and/or "volume" are abbreviated, they shall be shown as "alc." (alc) and/or "vol." (vol), respectively. Except as provided in paragraph (c) of this section, a tolerance of 1 percent, in the case of wines containing more than 14 percent of alcohol by volume, and of 1.5 percent, in the case of wines containing 14 percent or less of alcohol by volume, will be permitted either above or below the stated percentage.
          (2) "Alcohol ___ % to ___ % by volume," or similar appropriate phrase; Provided, that if the word "alcohol" and/or "volume" are abbreviated, they shall be shown as "alc." (alc) and/or "vol." (vol), respectively. Except as provided in paragraph (c) of this section, a range of not more than 2 percent, in the case of wines containing more than 14 percent of alcohol by volume, and of not more than 3 percent, in the case of wines containing 14 percent or less of alcohol by volume, will be permitted between the minimum and maximum percentages stated, and no tolerances will be permitted either below such minimum or above such maximum.
          (c) Regardless of the type of statement used and regardless of tolerances normally permitted in direct statements and ranges normally permitted in maximum and minimum statements, alcoholic content statements, whether required or optional, shall definitely and correctly indicate the class, type and taxable grade of the wine so labeled and nothing in this section shall be construed as authorizing the appearance upon the labels of any wine of an alcoholic content statement in terms of maximum and minimum percentages which overlaps a prescribed limitation on the alcoholic content of any class, type, or taxable grade of wine, or a direct statement of alcoholic content which indicates that the alcoholic content of the wine is within such a limitation when in fact it is not.

          [T.D. 6521, 25 FR 13835, Dec. 29, 1960, as amended by T.D. ATF-275, 53 FR 27046, July 18, 1988]

        2. Because they're not balanced. The 2003 Saxum Rocket Block was 16.6 percent alcohol and it wasn't out of balance. I couldn't detect the alcohol.

          7 Replies
          1. re: SteveTimko

            Exactly! Balance is EVERYTHING . . .

            Think salt in soup. In some soups, one tablespoon of "normal" table salt will leave the soup tasting too salty. In other soups, you could use three tablespoons, and still not taste obvious saltiness.

            I've had wines that seemed alcoholic at 13.0%, and wines that didn't seem alcoholic at 16+%; and, of course, the reverse is true, too.

            1. re: zin1953

              Jason, Steve:

              What, if you know, is the alcohol balanced WITH or BY that makes it less pronounced?? I've read a bit of Reynaud's "The Taste of WIne" and he goes into balance in terms of the relationship of the alcohol % as related to acidity and tannins. The result he expresses as degree of "suppleness". Have to say it's a bit over my head. Is there a simpler way to describe balance as it relates to acohol?

              1. re: Midlife

                If a wine is in balance, you're not going to notice anything out of place. Everything will be right where it should be and it will be seamless. If you find one of those wines, buy a case.

                On the nose, if the alcohol is strong and the wine doesn't have an equally powerful set of aroma compounds, you're going to have burnt nostrils. Temperature has some effect on this, but ultimately the wine is not in balance with itself and there's nothing you can really do.

                Acid, tannin, and residual sugar all help to bring the alcohol of a wine into balance on the palate. If you try some of the high octane monster Zins (or Cabs) from California, you might notice that there's a hint of sweetness on the palate. When you're smelling jammy/fruity notes, you're expecting it to match on the palate. One of the things that helps with that is a little bit of sugar. It rounds out and integrates the riper notes with the alcohol.

                To wrap your brain around "suppleness", try picturing shapes/textures when you're tasting. I'm a very visual person, so when I'm tasting, I tend to "see" shapes. Some wines are soft and round, some are sharp and pointy, some are rough but with rounded edges, some are just weird. For myself, when people refer to a wine as supple, it tends to be that balanced softer/round/lush "shape".

                1. re: Midlife

                  Midlife,

                  Personally, I'd ignore the specs. of the wine, until such time as I think something might be "unbalanced." I agree with Jason 100% on the "balance." If it's 12% and tastes "hot," balance has not been obtained. If it's 16.5%, and I do not notice it, then I think that "balance," has been obtained - though I do try to consume less of it!

                  To me, there is a floating triangle (if you consider Tannins, alcohol, fruit and acid - a rectangle), that constitues the "balance."

                  This is one of the reasaons, that I can personally enjoy some of the bigger Zins and PNs. They may be alcoholic, but they have enough of one, or more, of the other elements, to cover that aspect.

                  For a simple mind, such as mine, I tend to simplify it to just "balance." I suppose that one could create a spreadsheet, or a scatter-graph, and plot the elements, but that would take time away from drinking the stuff, for me.

                  Hunt

                  1. re: Bill Hunt

                    Could you (or Jason) provide us examples of wines that are in the area of 12% that are notoriously "hot" and conversely some above 15% which aren't?

                    Thanks

                    1. re: Bill Hunt

                      Thanks Bill,

                      I am solidly in the camp that thinks that most of the wine tasting adventure is in the personal reaction of the taster, regardless of what anyone else or any numbers or percentages might say (ie- do you LIKE the wine or not?). So I appreciate your thoughts on this.

                      I do, however, often find it useful to be able to explain the "how" of things like this, so I try to learn as much as I can of the more technical aspects.

                      1. re: Midlife

                        In reference to the "how" and why of things, and Chinon00:

                        It’s more likely that the wine that reeks of alcohol has a low/medium percentage of alcohol than a high percentage. I know that may sound crazy.

                        When a wine has few aroma compounds, usually due to immature fruit or a warm fermentation that blows off all the pleasing fruit aromas, the only smell left (sort of) is that of the alcohol. That's why you perceive it.

                        It's actually the opposite situation of a fruit-bomb wine that is merely an "everything is ripe" situation with lots of fruit, lots of aromas and lots of alcohol. In that case, the alcohol aromas aren't the only aromas that exist by a long shot, so you don't smell them.

                        The wine that reeks of alcohol gets that way, like I said, from immature fruit or a warm fermentation. But what also contributes to the alcohol smell is that the wine wasn't subjected to -- and didn't gain any additional flavor from -- malolactic fermentation, oak aging or yeast contact. So without mature fruit, sur lie, ML, barrel aging, and a longer, cooler fermentation to begin with, there's not enough *to* the wine, or not enough to keep the alcohol in suspension and not volatilize.

              2. Because they're probably made in California.

                4 Replies
                1. re: Chinon00

                  Barbera made in California? There's a new one.... -mJ

                  1. re: njfoodies

                    "Most California Barbera is grown in the Central Valley and finds its way into generic or proprietary blends. The Sierra Foothills, Paso Robles, Santa Clara and Sonoma, where very warm days are moderated by cool nights, produce some of the state's best varietal Barberas."
                    http://www.winepros.org/wine101/grape...
                    I've personally never had one. Shall we all go hunt one down and report back?

                    1. re: njfoodies

                      Really?

                      There are a LOT of people producing Barbera (and producing it well) in CA!

                      1. re: njfoodies

                        Barbera has been planted in California since the 19th century.