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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


                  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.


                  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?


                    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."
                    I've personally never had one. Shall we all go hunt one down and report back?

                    1. re: njfoodies


                      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.

                    2. High alcohol can do this, but more likely it's not a balanced wine. You can have a very high alc. wine that you can't taste the alcohol, and a lower % wine where it is just off.
                      It's all about how the winemaker made his monster.

                      1. High sugar levels in the grapes and perhaps left to ferment too long

                        1 Reply
                        1. Just a comment on your scale of alcohol: 13,5% is not high alcohol? Certainly there are even higher-alcohol wines, but after a quick check through my bottles, most of my wines are 11-12% alcohol, with the outliers being a 9% Rheinland Riesling and a 12,5% Côtes de Provence rosé. The highest alcohol wine I've had recently was a Châteauneuf-du-Pape which came in at 13,5 or 14% (I don't remember). That particular appellation is considered a high alcohol wine in France. If I were in Germany, my cabinet would more likely have wines in the 10-11% range. So I would say that probably it smelled high in alcohol because it was.

                          Why mediocre 14% wine smells like vodka but that Chateauneuf-du-Pape smelled like heaven, I don't know.

                          1. I'd like to revive this post rather than starting a new one since my question is related.

                            My SO has a penchant for "Parker wines". The bigger, the fruitier, the darker, with a hint of sweetness, the better! Shiraz might be her favorite, with Malbecs, Cabs, Merlots and Zins rounding it off.
                            She has general disdain for French bordeaux, Riojas or Chianti. Pinot Noir seldom really pleases her.
                            She has taken to quantifying her tastes as "red" with high alcohol. She went through our wine and pointed to the fact that most Bordeauxs were "only" 12.5-13% and there were some others at 12.5. She has a preference for Australian and Californian wines so when I buy an odd one she is likely to not get it out to try.
                            She has dug in her heels that she expects 13% minimum for reds. She thinks this is the litmus test for a robust enough red. She virtually won't drink a white, which is frustrating to me when we have white meats or fish.
                            First, what can I say to her that hasn't already been said here (that it's balance)? What wines would suit her that I haven't mentioned? I buy a lot of wine and am often spending $20-$30 for a bottle. Sometimes I buy cases if we agree on a wine and they might be in the mid teens. It's not a money issue as far as I am concerned. Right now we are about at the point of having our own bottles of wine when we have dinner unless we are having a robust main entree.

                            14 Replies
                            1. re: Scargod

                              Do some blind tasting to see if it is the alcohol content or the wine. (Save the left overs for me.)

                              1. re: Scargod

                                Mollydooker, Marquis-Phillips from Australia. Carlisle from the United States is big but balanced. It's also hard to find. MacPhail makes some nice pinots that are higher alcohol.

                                1. re: Scargod

                                  Scargod, I wonder if your SO would like a nice Italian Barbaresco. I recommend the 2005 Barbaresco - Produttori del Barbaresco. It's fruity with a hint of sweetness and is well balanced. It's also one of my favorites. I too prefer Australian and Californian wines to French ones. Have been trying some good Italians, and unlike your SO, I love a good Pinot Noir (Oregon or California).

                                  I don't get the thing about the 13% minimum for reds. I think that the Barbaresco I mentioned is 12.5%, which I consider robust enough, but then again I don't pay much attention to the % alcohol content as much as other characteristics (smoothness, balance, etc.). You definitely should have your SO do some blind taste-testing to get over the thing about %s. She doesn't know what she's missing!

                                  1. re: Gigi007

                                    I know what you are saying. Then there are the curve balls that don't help my cause.
                                    I fixed fresh beans, bowtie pasta with accouterments and chicken thighs in Indian curry sauce. We discussed a wine for dinner and we had been drinking a big, bad red pinot from Italy: Monte Degli Angeli, an inexpensive wine. I suggested we stick with pinots and we had a bottle of French Pinot, Chorey-Cote De Beaune, which is twice the money and twice as light and almost "flowery". I had never had it before. She did not like it and opened a bottle of 2006 Trinchero Family Syrah. While this is not a huge jammy wine, it is very drinkable and smooth, big in color and 13.5% alc.... There was a lot more to it than the French pinot!
                                    It made her happy. While I could smell a nice nose and found the delicate French pinot very appealing I could see where she was coming from and it seemed a little lightweight with the slightly spicy chicken dish. Perhaps a Zin? Anyway, I did not make any points tonight with "wimpy" wines.

                                    1. re: Scargod

                                      If nothing else, you should get an "A" for effort, Scargod. I would have paired the curry dish with a white Riesling or a sparkling wine, but I can understand why you decided to stick with a Pinot. And yes, a white Zin would have been good too.

                                      I went to some wine classes some time ago, and I recall being told that with spicy, especially Indian food, you shouldn't go with a wine with too high of an alcohol content (that is, above a 12.5-13%, although like I said before, I really don't pay attention to %s. I go with other criteria).

                                      Still I think your SO would do well to do some blind taste-testing. Maybe go to a couple of wine tastings and find out what she really likes in wine, and not just go by a % alcohol content figure. Just my two cents. You still should get an A for effort! :)

                                      1. re: Scargod

                                        In addition to wines from the Rhône, you might be able to compromise on some from the Mediterranean arc of southern France from the Rhône delta to the Spanish border that encompasses the Languedoc, Roussillon, Minervois, Faugères, Fitou, St-Chinian, Corbières and other appellations, including some very worthy vins de pays. The alcohol level of the reds often exceeds 13% yet some producers manage to make wines of character and finesse that even an alcoholphobe like me finds appealing. Favourite producers (some of them small, a number of them organic/biodynamic) include Mas Jullien, Domaine du Rouge Gorge, Domaine du Possible, Château St-Martin de la Garrigue, Chateau Coupe Roses, Cave de Roquebrun, Domaine de la Rectorie, Domaine Clavel, Jean-Michel Alquier, Domaine Gardiès, Domaine Le Pas de l'Escalette, Mas de Daumas Gassac, Domaine de la Grange des Pères, Olivier Pithon and Clos du Gravillas.

                                        Still, it sounds like you're the one who's doing all the compromising. In your shoes, I'd at least insist on a 50-50 deal, where S.O. got to choose the wine one evening and I got to choose the wine the next. But even then, the thought of being forced to drink that much Shiraz, that much oak, that much alcohol, that much red would probably have me looking at separate bottles and wine-preservation systems...

                                        1. re: carswell

                                          <<Still, it sounds like you're the one who's doing all the compromising.>>

                                          Thank you for saying this.This situation isn't *all* about wine.

                                          FWIW, I'm rootin' for you, Scargod.

                                          1. re: carswell

                                            We do have the vacuum corking system so we can have quite a few bottle open at once. SO has agreed to start tracking exactly what she likes (has had no memory in the past of what she's drank and liked or what the label looks like), basically keeping a wine diary. Also has been more agreeable to drink whites. With sashimi last night, she had Cambria, Katherine's vineyard, chardonnay with me after a glass of cab with her spicy tuna. We brought home the unfinished bottle. Progress!
                                            She says now she sees it is about balance. She is paying more attention.

                                            1. re: Scargod

                                              Good for her. I knew her big beautiful brain was going to come to terms with this :)

                                              1. re: Scargod

                                                In many years of attending and running wine tastings, I've noticed that fruit bombers and white wine haters often end up expanding their view of what's acceptable and even learning to appreciate wines they once despised. Seems to be a function of exposure and the right context. Glad to hear SO may be one of them. Keep fighting the good fight!

                                                YMMV but, of all the commonly available wine preservation systems, I think vacuum pumps are the worst, especially for storage longer than a few hours. Inert gas systems like Private Preserve are my first choice. With a few exceptions, I even find that freezing works better than vacuum pumps.

                                                1. re: Scargod

                                                  Glad to hear that the SO is broadening her horizons. :)

                                              2. re: Scargod

                                                Soak and peel off and switch labels and see what happens then. Oooo, bad.

                                                1. re: Passadumkeg

                                                  My thoughts exactly. You're a bad influence, Passadumkeg! :)

                                            2. re: Scargod

                                              For me, it is about the balance. Now, I like big, and bold, but also subtle and nuanced. Many times we've had a wonderful wine, only to discover that it was 14.2%, or 8.5%. Now, I've hit many pretty close, but others have completely fooled me, but I still enjoyed them.

                                              Unlike some, I do not get too hung up on the numbers. If the winemaker got it all right, I do not really care, beyond dinner table conversations.