by Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)
Last week, I discussed what can be done by the winemaker to affect the alcohol level in the finished wine. But that begs the question whether the winemaker should try to lower the alcohol level in his wines. At the very high end (grapes with very high sugar levels), the winemaker runs the risk of a stuck fermentation (one that doesn’t’ complete and leaves residual sugar in the wine). I don’t think very many winemakers would start a fermentation with a high likelihood it will stick, so pretty much all winemakers will water down to the extent they think necessary to avoid a stuck fermentation.
But a fermentation sticks because the yeast die off due to high alcohol levels. As yeasts have been developed that are tolerant of higher and higher alcohol levels, it has become possible to ferment wines to very high alcohol levels without the problem of the fermentation sticking. However, the winemaker may not like other features of these high-alcohol tolerant yeasts, so would prefer to use a less alcohol tolerant yeast. If so, then watering down high Brix musts is a necessity.
But even putting aside issues of stuck fermentations, it is an open question whether winemakers should seek any particular alcohol level, or range of levels. I personally don’t believe that alcohol level standing alone is much of an indicator of a wine’s quality. I’ve had plenty of high alcohol wines that were well balanced, and plenty of lower alcohol wines that were not. I think most people would have a pretty hard time guessing with any accuracy the alcohol level of a wine just from tasting it.
Even if you grant that, as a general rule, higher alcohol wines are going to correlate with riper, richer flavors (which is probably the case), clearly you have a tradeoff. If you like those riper richer flavors, then you’re probably going to tend to like higher alcohol wines.
And, finally, alcohol itself contributes to the sensual expression of a wine. Alcohol tends to lend viscosity to the wine, and imparts a flavor akin to sweetness. So you if tend to like those attributes in a wine, you’ll gravitate towards higher alcohol wines. Conversely, if you like a drier style, lower alcohol wines will probably be your preference.
I do have to admit a bias in favor of lower alcohol wines on one score. I like to drink wine and not get plastered. Obviously, the higher the alcohol level of the wine, the less of it you can drink and stay more or less sober. That’s one reason I like German Rieslings so much—their low alcohol levels mean you can drink more without feeling the effects.
But I count myself among winemakers who tend toward the more opulent, fruitier, style of wine. So higher alcohol levels come with that territory, and I am willing to pay the price in terms of alcohol level to gain the flavor profile I want. The big qualification is that the wine must remain balanced, which is more difficult to achieve in a very high alcohol wine. But, bottom line, I put how good the wine tastes ahead of any consideration of alcohol level in making my wines.