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Alcohol level

I just rec'd a quarterly wine club delivery from a local vineyard. One of my selections is listed as 16% alcohol which is higher than i remember on any other wine that i have bought. The wine is a lovely Bordeaux blend. How high is the alcohol level allowed to be for wine. Not considering fortified wine of course.

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  1. Hi, budnball:

    Well, a couple of things. First, you can make and sell "wine" of whatever ABV you want; the real question is what tax is paid on it. Second, the way I and many other winemakers look at it, 16% *is* fortified--it usually needs to be manipulated to get there. The rule of thumb for traditional winemaking is that your ABV can be just under half of your starting Brix. E.g., pick at 25, wine's gonna come in around 12.5. 16% wine would require a starting Brix of at least 32. Even if you did that, you have to find yeast(s) that can tolerate 16% ethanol. Chances are your wine was centrifuged to reach that height.

    Separate and apart, why anyone would *want* a wine that tall is beyond me. Oh, wait, Parker likes them that way...

    15 Replies
    1. re: kaleokahu

      Good points.

      I have had a few in the 15+ range, that were balanced (to me), and enjoyable. However, 16 % is getting to about the max, for non-fortified wines, and especially for a Bdx blend. That is up there with the Edmeade's Alden Ranch Zin - "the mother of all Zins... " and is flirting with Port-style wines.

      Still, it should be about balance, and I have had 12 + % ABV wines, that seemed "hot" to me.

      Hunt

      PS - unless I notice a lack of balance, I only use ABV as a parlor game - guess the ABV.

      1. re: Bill Hunt

        Of course when I say Bordeaux blend, this the wine makers description, as the wine is from California. California wines seem to be higher in etoh than the "old world" wines.I am used to reading 13.5-15+% but this was my first 16.

        1. re: budnball

          The term Bordeaux Blend (some or all of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec and Petite Verdot) is common, in both Old World and New World. One might also see one referred to (in the US) as a Meritage. Now, the New World is likely to be higher ABV, than an Old World offering, but that is the determination of the winemaker, and the fruit used. Do not recall a 16%, but then, might have missed it. If all was in balance, I probably would not have even looked.

          The higher ABV is prominent in the US, but also elsewhere, though usually New World, regardless of the country of origin.

          Will pay closer attention in the future, and offer observations.

          Hunt

        2. re: Bill Hunt

          In the late-1960s and early-1970s, both Ridge and David Bruce produced DRY Zinfandel wines that hit 17% abv . . . no manipulation required.

          1. re: zin1953

            I am not sure of the "manipulation," but I do see a few ABV levels now - not many, but some.

            Hunt

        3. re: kaleokahu

          I doubt the wine was centrifuged to reach 16% -- I just don't see what would be gained by that type of manipulation.
          I expect that the winery just waited until the grapes had a very high brix level before picking. That might have been intentional, sometimes winemakers like the intensity that comes from super ripe grapes or, in a warmer climate, sometimes the sugar levels get ahead of the flavor ripeness of the grape. And, sometimes, there is a heat wave just before harvest and the brix spikes before the grapes can be brought in.
          It takes a hardy yeast to ferment wine to 16%, but certainly many zinfandel producers have found such yeasts.
          I always find looking at alcohol levels interesting, but the levels don't tell you that much about what the wine will be like.

          1. re: kaleokahu

            >>> First, you can make and sell "wine" of whatever ABV you want; the real question is what tax is paid on it. <<<
            True.

            >>> Second, the way I and many other winemakers look at it, 16% *is* fortified--it usually needs to be manipulated to get there. <<<
            No it doesn't! Dozens of California wines in the 1970s came in at 16.0+% abv, long before anyone was using centrifuges, spinning cones, reverse osmosis, and the like -- and those techniques are primarily used for DECREASING a wine's alcohol content, not increasing it!

            >> The rule of thumb for traditional winemaking is that your ABV can be just under half of your starting Brix. E.g., pick at 25, wine's gonna come in around 12.5. 16% wine would require a starting Brix of at least 32. <<<
            Not since Amerine & Joslyn wrote "Table Wines" has the conversion factor been "Brix divided by 2," and the most recent (second) edition of that book came out in 1970! 25 Brix = 12.5% abv hasn't happened in nearly 40 years . . . or more! As early as 1978, I was regular seeing conversion rates of 0.55 -- meaning that 25 Brix would result in 13.75% abv., and by the early 1990s, we were regularly seeing conversion factors of 0.62 (25 Brix = 15.2% abv.) 16% is no stretch whatsoever . . . sadly.

            >>> Even if you did that, you have to find yeast(s) that can tolerate 16% ethanol. Chances are your wine was centrifuged to reach that height. <<<
            Several commercial strains can do that standing on their head, and no centrifuging is required!

            1. re: zin1953

              Hi, Jason:

              I concede the point that (if you manipulate your yeasts and fermentations) you might not need to physically manipulate alcohol concentration to get to 16. Great winemaking muscle flexion. But in the real world, Brix divided by two happens all the time, and remains a good rule of thumb to ground both makers and drinkers. We now have women in their 70s bearing children, but that doesn't make it right. Likewise Frankenyeasts.

              The trend you saw in the 1970s, that one could squeeze an additional 5% conversion from 25 Brix (working about a 1% increase in ABV) wasn't necessarily a bad thing, just an invitation to one--which I hope now we have realized. IMO, responsible makers use the increased conversion factors only to avoid paying their growers for water.

              Trends can be terrible things. Parker likes very high alcohol wines, wines that are almost nothing like the wines of 100 or 1000 years ago. Some folks like IPAs that are hopped beyond nightmare. The problem becomes that (a) consumers believe what they are told, once duped (b) insist on the stilted version they've been sold, and pretty soon (c) the naked Emperor is fully clothed.

              Aloha,
              Kaleo

              1. re: kaleokahu

                "Trends can be terrible things. Parker likes very high alcohol wines, wines that are almost nothing like the wines of 100 or 1000 years ago. Some folks like IPAs that are hopped beyond nightmare. The problem becomes that (a) consumers believe what they are told, once duped (b) insist on the stilted version they've been sold, and pretty soon (c) the naked Emperor is fully clothed."

                and why a certain very large coffee chain has convinced the american public that coffee beans should be roasted to the point that ----------

                1. re: jock

                  <and why a certain very large coffee chain has convinced the american public that coffee beans should be roasted to the point that ---------->

                  Jock, it's okay to say "burnt!"

                2. re: kaleokahu

                  I would only quibble with the expression "manipulate your yeasts." At Louis M. Martini, we were using "regular" commercially available yeasts -- year after year, the exact same yeasts. I never saw a conversion LESS than a factor of 0.55. The same was true at Mondavi, Heitz, Burgess Cellars, and others.

                  As for the 0.62 conversion factor I saw at Storrs in the Santa Cruz Mountains, again all were Lalvin commercial yeasts and slants. Admittedly, we played with using different yeasts -- using a different strain for every Macro-Bin fermenter, even though the varietal and vineyard source were the same. But we were *never* buying this or that strain for its ability to generate higher levels of alcohol; we were looking for nuances in flavors.

                  Q: How would (e.g.) the Merlot from "Cache Phloe" vineyard taste fermented on x yeast, as opposed to y and z?
                  A: Let's try all three and find out!

                  /\/\/\/\/\/\/\

                  By the way, if you look at Lalvin's website here -- http://www.lalvinyeast.com/strains.asp -- you'll see that several strains tolerate levels of alcohol of 16-18% abv.

                  1. re: zin1953

                    Hi, Jason:

                    Re: every Macrobin getting a different strain... 60 into 490, say a max of 8 barrels per strain, probably closer to 6. Did you keep everything segregated?

                    EC-1118 has only been available for vinification since 1995, right?

                    Cheers, Kaleo

                    1. re: kaleokahu

                      We kept everything separate until we didn't . . .

                      Every vintage we would -- from various sources, not just Lalvin -- use a variety of yeast strains on the same lot. As I mentioned, it might have been (e.g.) macrobins of Merlot, or barrels of Chardonnay . . . we would press the Chard into stainless to let it settle, rack into barrels, and THEN innoculate -- one strain per barrel. Simultaneously, we'd be using different barrels and different coopers -- so we might have a lot of X that fermented on yeast Y aging in 6-10 different types of oak.

                      Then we'd evaluate the results, and only then would be begin blending trials . . .

                      1. re: zin1953

                        Hi, Jason: "Then we'd evaluate the results, and only then would be begin blending trials . . ."

                        So, typically, how long would the yeast/oak variants sit segregated in cooperage before the blending evaluations?

                        Cheers,
                        Kaleo

            2. I think 16% is about as high as you can go without some serious manipulation during the winemaking process. Priorats are now reaching into that range, and the Australians have been there for a while now (e.g. Greenock Creek's 2006 Grenache is 18%).

              If it's balanced, then great. The 2005 Alto Moncayo I had last month was very well balanced and no one noticed the 16 until someone decided to read the label. That Greenock Creek was sort of a fall out of your chair kind of experience (food didn't help it).

              1. Some years back bought a Cab Franc at a Niagara area winery and noticed there were two cuvees. One had alcohol of @ 14 and the other had @ 18. Winemaker said that the cask for the higher alcohol cuvee had had a small crack and the wine evaporated leaving higher residual alcohol. Do l believe it, probably not, but the alcohol was very high and far better than the other cuvee, so l bought a bunch.

                8 Replies
                1. re: Delucacheesemonger

                  Ignoring the question of how a Niagara winery got their grapes so ripe as to make any non-fortified wine 18% abv -- and I don't believe their explanation for a moment -- the underlying point is crucial: the alcohol level in and of itself doesn't tell much about the wine (other than, perhaps, how much you can drink before you run the risk of a DUI). I've had wines that were 16%, as well as wines which were 13.5% abv, that seemed hot, alcoholic and out-of-balance, as well as wines that were >16.5% that were smooth, balanced and showed no trace of excessive alcohol whatsoever.

                  1. re: Delucacheesemonger

                    Jason, maybe I'm off base, but doesn't the alcohol (being lighter than air and all that) evaporate *first*, leaving the solids behind, thereby *reducing* the residual alcohols?

                    1. re: sunshine842

                      That's my understanding . . . at least it's certainly more plausible than have wine leak out through a crack in the barrel and having everything ELSE evaporate EXCEPT the alcohol! ;^)

                      1. re: zin1953

                        maybe there was a crack in the refractometer... ;)

                      2. re: sunshine842

                        Hi, sunshine:

                        I'm not sure I buy the explanation, either. But we should not assume that water and alcohol transpire through cooperage at the same rates. I can't remember if Peynaud quantified this or not. Unless the "crack" in the barrel was large, I think the loss from transpiration would be larger than from evaporation (especially so if the barrel couldn't hold a partial vacuum).

                        I'm also thinking that Vin Santo might be illustrative here. VS casks are not topped up, but are allowed to transpire for many years. Perhaps Jason or another pro knows how the beginning and bottling ABVs for VS compare?

                        Finally, there may be an ullage thing at work here. Partially full barrels do funny (and most times bad) things, and you can drive yourself crazy with all the factors--ullage volume, surface areas, positive pressures *under* the surface, vacuums (or not) above it, ambient air exhange, minor bio contamination, saturation/clogging/clearing of the capillaries in the oak... [head explodes]

                        So I don't think this matter is as simple as which, alcohol or water, evaporates fastest.

                        Aloha,
                        Kaleo

                        1. re: kaleokahu

                          Hey, Kaleo --

                          Found this : http://www.cognac-world.com/article.p... -- when Cognac is first barreled, it's somewhere around 70% alcohol.

                          I know that Cognacs are at about 40% on the shelf...the cheap ones are diluted, of course, but this would mean that during the aging period, the alcohol *drops* as it's aged (through transpiration, evaporation, etc., etc., etc....as the liquid evaporates it creates ullage, bla bla bla) -- but the bottom line is that YES, as fermented spirits age, the alcohol content DROPS, marking the vintner's comments as hogwash.

                          Doesn't change, however, the fact that Deluca got his hands on wine that *he* liked...so everybody's happy, even if the winemaker pulled the explanation of of his tuchus.

                          1. re: sunshine842

                            Hi, sunshine:

                            Thanks, that was interesting. A lot of spirits (being spirits) are high right out of the still and are watered before they reach us. The same thing happens at gas refineries--in the pipeline, gas is gas, and your ethyl is just diluted a little less than my regular.

                            I'm pretty much out of my depth at this point, but I'll note that there are several physical properties operating in that cracked barrel, one being alcohol's higher evap (really its boiling) rate, another being water's much smaller molecular size (alcohol being larger to the entire extent of the ethyl chain). There is also doubtlessly a "Reverse Gore-tex" thing happening, otherwise all barrels would leak, and in colors.

                            There has to be more to the story than the Cognac site would suggest, because the best Vin Santo sits, paying the Angel's Share, en barrique for 20+ years. They lose something like 60-70% of the volume over that time. One would think that if alcohol left faster than water, the finished product would be temperance-approved by then, but it's not.

                            Cheers,

                            Kaleo

                            1. re: kaleokahu

                              I'm right there with you in now being in over your head -- but I'm wondering if it doesn't reach some point of equilibrium -- I've seen barrels (in moulding old barns rich with the smell of the angel's share of Cognac and Calvados) that were 100 years old or more...and they don't seem to be too concerned about maintaining the alcohol levels.

                    2. I spoke with the vintner of the wine I first posted about. He said he was expecting about 15.+% but sugars got away a bit. Seems balanced to me but I like big fruit. Was interesting to hear the wine maker talk about missing the mark with a wine I think is fine. His quiet disappointment reminded me that really good winemaking is a constantly moving target. The struggle of a man or woman to get a dream into a glass is such a big part of the romance of wine, and this guy helped me connect with it. He also has me as a long time customer.