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Oct 27, 2011 10:01 PM

Too much alcohol.

Do you find it is harder to pair the wine with the food when the alcohol content is 13.5 or above. I am just beginning to learn about wine. When I was in Italy most of the wines I was served were around 12 to 12.5 % and were very drinkable with the meals. I see the same in micro brewed beers. Alot of high alcohol , not that is a bad thing, But are alot of wines to big ?

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  1. The question is NOT one of numbers, but of balance. In other words, there are some wines that may be -- let's say -- 12.5-13.0% abv and will seem hot and harsh, while other wines with the same alcohol level will seem smooth and very drinkable. OTOH, the same is true with wines that are, let's say, 15.0-15.5% abv: some will be hot and harsh, while others will be smooth and very drinkable with meals.

    That said: TO GENERALIZE, more New World wines (e.g.: US, Australia) will be higher in alcohol than old World wines (e.g.: Europe), but that also depends upon the region -- it's common nowadays for Southern Rhônes to be in the 14+% range, for example.

    4 Replies
    1. re: zin1953

      As confirmation, I recently had a marvelous Woodenhead Zinfandel nearing 16% abv--well-balanced, flavourful and smooth.

      1. re: eethan

        Nice, Zinfandel was the wine I first started drinking. I am going to try to find a big wine as I call it. I live in Santa Cruz just south of San Francisco. Any California wines I should try from $10 - 15 ? Thanks for all your information.

        1. re: emglow101

          Check out the wine tasting rooms warehouse in the Ingalls St. area. Boony Doon and several others have rooms there and the Grocery store gas good prices on local wines.

    2. In general terms, I find more "food friendly" wines with lower ABV, however, and as Jason notes, it is all about the balance for me.

      Unless I am playing a "parlor game," by guessing the ABV, I seldom take notice, UNTIL things are out of balance.

      Also, there are so many variables, regarding food friendliness, starting with the food itself, ABV is but one consideration. Having spicy Thai w/ a high ABV wine will usually focus one on the wine's heat, even though the balance seems good, when sipped alone.

      In very, very general terms, I agree with you, but usually state it slightly differently - I find more lower ABV wines to be better options - but then there is a great big "it depends" amended to that statement. When faced with unknown attributes in a pairing, I will tend to go lower on the ABV scale, because more seem to fit the bill, but that does not mean that I will not reach for a big Zin, with my grilled sirloin burgers! [Grin]

      Most of all, enjoy!


      4 Replies
      1. re: Bill Hunt

        And let's face it -- while "high alcohol" Bordeaux (13.5%+) is indeed a relatively new thing (thanks to the lord, our god, Robert Parker -- oysh!), that alcohol has *always* been around in Châteauneuf-du-Pape . . . and no one ever complained! ;^)

        1. re: zin1953

          Good discussion. My 2 cents:

          Sometimes the discussion of old world (lower alcohol) vs new world (higher alcohol) seems more ideological than necessary. My POV is a combo of preferred flavor profile and climate. In Australia, those big Shiraz bombs seem great with a great steak. Similarly, those Cali Cabs and Zins can knock your socks off, sacrificing subtlety for power. These influence local preferences for bigger wines.

          In France, the nuance of Burgundies and many Bordeaux offer a more subtle flavor profile. This leads many Europeans to steer away from alcohol heavy wines.

          But, isnt the sunny climate of Australia and California a root cause? Sunny = high alcohol. Cool and rainy = lower alcohol. That's very straightforward, affecting both the flavor and the preferences of those who live in those areas.

          The dilemma is Rhone, in France, but with sunny weather and high alcohol wines. Question: do the French really like Rhones? The world (and I) really want to know.

          I like them all!

            1. re: cortez

              First things first:

              >>> Similarly, those Cali(fornia) Cabs and Zins can knock your socks off, sacrificing subtlety for power. These influence local preferences for bigger wines. <<<

              Not too long ago, the average alcohol level for California Cabernets and Zinfandels was 12-12.5%, or even less!

              >>> In France, the nuance of Burgundies and many Bordeaux offer a more subtle flavor profile. This leads many Europeans to steer away from alcohol heavy wines. <<<

              The French, in particular, are HUGE consumers of Ruby Porto, at 18-20%. So, too, the Germans and, of course, the Portuguese themselves. Spaniards drink massive amounts of Sherry, with alcohol levels ranging from 15.5-20%, while the English traditionally drink BOTH. Italy produces wines like Amarone -- 15%+ alcohol -- and so on and so on and so on . . . .



              Alcohol levels have -- with today's technology -- little to do with Old World v. New World, if indeed they ever did. That said, much of what you said is true. Confusing? Let me explain.

              Historically -- as in "let's go back to the 1800s" and earlier -- wines were low(er) in alcohol than they are today. "Claret," long the English term for Bordeaux, was a corruption of the word "clairet," meaning light red. Even after World War II, into the 1950s and 1960s, Bordeuax and Napa Valley Cabernets were typically 12.0-12.5% alcohol by volume (abv). Indeed,UC Davis *used* to teach that sugar -- as measured in "degrees Brix" -- divided by 2 equalled alcohol. In other words, harvesting grapes at 24° Brix ÷ 2 = 12.0% abv. Sometime in the late 1960s-early 1970s, UC Davis taught that sugar × 0.55 = alcohol. In other words, 24° Brix × 0.55 = 13.2% abv. But in the wineries *I* worked in, conversion rates of 0.60-0.62 were not uncommon, meaning that 24° Brix × 0.62 = 14.88% abv.

              Go figure.

              Add to that the idea of harvesting when the grapes are "physiologiccally ripe" rather than "by the numbers," and that leads to harvesting at higher sugar levels that would be considered "normal" 25 years ago.

              PLUS, getting back to that technology comment above, it's possible (and done more often that I would like to think) to "concentrate" the wine -- eliminating water, raising the alcohol level -- through various techniques such as spinning cone, reverse osmosis, cryo-extraction, etc., and these are used on both sides of the Atlantic!

              So it isn't as simple as merely saying, "Sunny = high alcohol. Cool and rainy = lower alcohol" -- although there IS an underlying truth to sun = more ripening = higher sugar levels = higher alcohol levels, all else being equal. But "all else" is rarely equal, is it?

              Two final comments: 1) keep in mind that (again, going back to the 19th and even the 18th century) Rhône wines were *often* blended into the better known Burgundies to increase the alcohol levels for transport; and 2) yes, the French really DO like wines from the Rhône, Provence and the south of France . . .


        2. Responding to the OP... I agree with the others about balance -- both when it comes to enjoying the wine on its own or with food.

          You also asked "are a lot of wines too big?" A general answer is probably. There are likely many comments similar to the one I make in the next sentence in several other threads in this forum. When you are competing for shelve space, sales, etc, anything you do to get noticed by the people who can influence wouldbe purchasers of your product helps. So make wines that that leave an impression on the critics. That's another generalization, but it's rooted in enough truth.

          I recently had a bottle of 2009 Cline Live Oak Zinfandel (16% ABV). The wine was not "hot" as one might have thought. But it definitely was jammy. Although 16% ABV, it was pretty obvious not all the sugar was converted to alcohol. Still, when paired with butternet squash risotto, the match worked farily well. I actually enjoyed the wine more with the risotto than I would have on its own. And that certainly isn't the case for me with most zinfandels in recent years.

          8 Replies
          1. re: Brad Ballinger

            Hm. I am, I think, part of a different consumer group than many posters on this blog in that wine has replaced beer as my social bar drinking staple. For the people in my group, wine is a tasty beverage to get a nice buzz on and get friendly. At the wine bars, I see lots of fruity Pinots and Zins, Rhone blends, Reislings, all kinds of whites. Very few Cabs or non Rhone French reds. Of course there is not much eating going on.

            1. re: budnball


              Your comments are very helpful, particularly on the historic aspects of wine produced and consumed around the world.

              I think, however, that the detail of your historical analysis might obscure modern consumer behavior: warm climate consumers (Cali and Oz) might very well prefer more alcoholic wines than cooler climate consumers (Burgundy, Alsace, Germany). This preference does not make one superior to the other or universal within their geographies ( eg, I live in Napa but prefer Bordeaux blends over monster Cabs). But, people tend to prefer what they know: locally produced wine.

              My limited point is to let flavor profiles develop and change just as producers learn and adapt to evolving technologies and consumer preferences. The ideology of styles ( % alcohol, etc) is too rigid and old world for modern consumers.

              1. re: cortez

                I think "modern consumer behavior" is divided into two camps, when it comes to wine. First are the casual drinkers, whose behavior is shaped perhaps more by advertising and price than climate and locale. Second are the (for lack of a better term) more serious wine consumers, the ones who are more likely to spend more for a bottle of wine in a wine store than the former group would pay in a restaurant -- people who buy wines from wineries that (again, for lack of a better way to describe it) written up in the Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator.

                I would respectfully suggest that it has nothing to do with "warm climate consumers (California and Australia) might very well prefer more alcoholic wines." After all, these wines were not always more alcoholic (i.e.: it cannot be a cultural, traditional, or hereditary preference). Rather, I would say that the trend towards higher alcohols in wine lie directly on the shoulders of Robert Parker and his (evil) minions, acolytes, and imitators.


                1. re: zin1953


                  You are probably close, but I would contend that there are some consumer palates, that are not dictated to by the wine-porn press - mine, for instance. I like many really big wines, and a bunch of them have higher ABV.

                  OTOH, I love my GR Rieslings, which usually have much lower ABV.

                  I like my red Burgs, but also my Santa Rita Hills fruit (and ABV) bombs.

                  I do not read Parker, and have not had a subscription to WS for many years.

                  I choose my wines by personal tastings, or via selections by sommeliers. They are full-spectrum, and from many different areas of the world, done in differing styles.

                  While I might be unique, somehow, I do not think so.

                  There are some, who just love wines, and different wines. I seldom pay any attention to wine advertising, and actually probably shun it, though I was in that industry for decades. Wife does rely on shelf talkers, and it's really hit-or-miss there.Still, she loves to read them, and will buy, based on them. I never bother, but that is just me.

                  Maybe a third group?


                  1. re: Bill Hunt

                    Oh, there definitely is a third group -- and even (probably) a fourth one, if I think hard enough. Things are, after all, rarely that black-and-white.

                    The third group is populated by people such as yourself: people who -- through tasting wines for themselves; through personal experience -- know enough about their own personal palate preferences to trust their own tastes and decide for themselves, AND have the sort of relationship with "professional" retailers and/or sommeliers that THEY can make solid recommendations that suit the individual's tastes. This is, however, a two-way street, and the individual must be able to communicate to the retailer (or sommelier) what his/her likes and dislikes are in a way that the retailer understands.

                    Typically, this comes only after years of experience.

                    NOTE: this is not possible at places like Trader Joe's, Costco, BevMo, Sam's Club, and other "club" stores/mass market retailers. You need the store owners/employees to be "into" wine -- as knowledgable and experienced, if not (hopefully) more so, than their customers.

                    I readily acknowledge my cynicism, Bill, but I spent too many years watching far too many customers coming into too many stores carrying too many issues of the Wine Spectator or Parker not to think this remains a sizable portion of the American wine drinking public. And while things have indeed improved since the people knelt at the Alter of Parker and prayed, "For God's sake, tell me what to drink!" there are STILL a number of people who hang on every word.

                    Part of the problem is that this is not just limited to consumers, and indeed they are (within limits) trapped but others. That is to say, Chateau Cache Phloe gets a 99-point rating from a publication for their Napa Valley Cabernet, and other wineries try to imitate that style. (It's not that simple, but you understand where I'm going with this.) Soon, they're getting good write-ups, and others follow -- and the result? Not only are consumers limited in the type/style of Napa Cab they can find in the marketplace (due to lack of variety), but all-too-many -- consciously or subconsciously -- are being "told" what they should like (through publications, signage AND the recommendations of individuals, be it the guy in the BevMo aisle or the indifferent sommelier who pre-categorizes the potential customer and sells only what they are interested in selling, rather than listening to the consumer and his/her wishes).

                    But -- hey! -- I'm just a cynical curmudgeon, aren't I???


                    1. re: zin1953


                      You are correct, as you most often are. There ARE still many, who only believe what they read in the wine-porn press. We attended a food and wine event at a lovely little resort, and the wine maker, plus his charming wife were there. The wines were great, and stood on their own - all of them. However, many in the crowd wanted to read the reviews by Laube, Parker and the rest. Some also quoted the "oracles" from their reviews. While I knew of the wines, I had not experienced any, and wanted to do so, based on recs. from a few sommelier "buddies," as I had never read a word.

                      After hearing many of the quotes, I did have to agree that most reviewers were correct, but that did not prompt me to subscribe, only to buy a few cases of the wines.

                      These wines, mostly Cal-Cabs, were quite big, but then were most often (in this event) paired with appropriate fare, and went beautifully. They were all well-balanced, and the ABV was a bit of a surprise to me, even though I am usually pretty good at nailing that number, with just a few tastes. Lot to be said for balance.

                      In such a discussion, I am always reminded of a wine-oriented cartoon, probably for 20 years ago.

                      Customer goes back to a wine shop and complains, "That wine you sold me yesterday was plonk. It was totally undrinkable, and I had to pour it down the drain!"

                      The wine shop employee says, "But sir, that wine just got a 99 from the "Wine Speculator."

                      Customer, "OK, then I'll take a case of it... "

                      Yeah, I guess that does happen.

                      Thanks for your perspective,


                      1. re: Bill Hunt

                        Actually, that cartoon was based upon real life -- involving the interaction between a customer and Steve Wallace at Wally's in Westwood (Los Angeles). He returned 11-1/2 bottles of a case he had purchased, saying it was undrinkable swill. A month or so later, after -- it was either Parker or the Spectator - the wine received a very high score he was back to buy a case . . . Steve gently reminded him he'd already purchased a case and returned 11+ bottles, that he didn't like the wine, and delicately (after all, the customer is always right) suggested this might not be the right wine for him to buy (again). Customer replied, "That was before I knew I was supposed to like it!"

                        True story!

                        1. re: zin1953


                          Thank you for that "behind the scenes" look into history. I only knew the cartoon, but have seen such happen myself. I can easily believe that it happened, and about the way that you outlined things.



          2. I think these high alcohol wines have to do with the fact that many, if not most, Americans consume wine without food.

            I had a St. Emilion Bordeaux with dinner and was astonished to see that it only had 12% alcohol -- it's been so long since I've seen a 12% alcohol wine. It was very "food friendly." As opposed to the 15.5% cult California wine that a friend brought to dinner recently, which was palate fatiguing.

            3 Replies
            1. re: omotosando

              That is possible.

              However, I consume wines both with, and without food. There are plenty of "solo sippers," that I enjoy, and then some wines, that I always want to have with food. It just depends.

              In very general terms, more of my food-friendly choices are lower in ABV, but not always. Think I mentioned some big Zins with burgers, somewhere in this thread?

              It just depends.


              1. re: Bill Hunt

                And I know I've had this discussion before regarding American red wines....they seem to have become overly sweet and the ABV's have become too high...16%???...and I think there is no mistake that these wines are chasing the American craving for sweet sweet, anything sweet. I mean, look at some of the mass market labels "Cupcake", etc.. eww. I'm enjoying a Cabernet Franc tonight from France that is 12.5%, very nice Bourgueil. Just saying...

                1. re: Val

                  I'm curious as to what percentage of California wines have alcohol less than 13%. I would venture to guess it is miniscule.

            2. I agree that it comes down to balance and the wine not being "hot". It will hit you harder tho' obviously. So during the course of a meal after the first glass and a half the effect is very different than if it were a typical 12.5% abv. I remember having a 16% abv Zin w/ pizza once. I was asleep after twice slices.