The issue of alcohol levels in wines has received new attention in recent weeks after the San Francisco Chronicle announced that it would include alcohol percentages in its reviews. This is a positive development, though the Chronicle is not unique in the practice. I, for one, have included alcohol levels in most of my reviews -- for MSNBC.com over many years and, more lately, for this blog. Every time I pick up a bottle of wine, whether in a store or from a box of press samples I have received, the alcohol level is one of the first things I look at. Sometimes it is nicely visible, usually on the back label. But often it is printed in extremely small type in a lower corner of the front label, sometimes even requiring a magnifying glass (or my children’s eyes) to make it out. Are these wineries trying to hide something?
But why look for this number and disclose it in reviews in the first place? For one thing, the alcohol level, even with a permitted margin of error, is the best indicator for consumers of the style of wine they are about buy or drink (beyond a knowledge of specific regions and appellations, which many consumers don’t have). The higher the alcohol the longer the grapes spent hanging on the vine and accumulating sugar, which is converted into alcohol during fermentation. Thus, so-called “big” wines have higher alcohol levels, often in the range of 14.5 to 15 percent or more. These include many California reds and some chardonnays. By contrast, wines we would consider “light” are typically in the 12 to 13 percent range and include such wines as the white Muscadet and red Beaujolais from France. It’s important to note that lower alcohol levels don’t necessarily mean that you’ll be drinking wines without character. Both Muscadet and Beaujolais, for example, can show wonderfully expressive and concentrated fruit.
Alcohol levels, of course, have increased substantially over the years, driven up by warming trends and, perhaps more importantly (and disturbingly), by a perception among some winemakers that certain critics have a preference for bigger and bolder wines. (I looked at a prized bottle in my collection recently, a Bordeaux from the famed 1982 vintage, and was reminded that alcohol levels in the region back in those days were a mere 12 percent!) The problem with some big-fruit, high-alcohol wines is that they have been zapped of their natural acidity. They lack balance. There are exceptions, of course, and I have enjoyed some very big, very powerful wines from time to time. But I can’t tell you how many flabby reds and whites I taste every year – big, bold wines, many from California, that are hotly alcoholic and are chore to drink. For me, this is not what enjoying wine is about. The good news is that some winemakers seem to be getting the message that not everyone wants to drink wines in this style.
It is, of course, a matter of preference, but I, for one, will continue to scrutinize the labels in search of learner, less alcoholic, more elegant bottles that, in general, I find to be more refreshing and better partners with food. By the way, soon after the Chronicle said it would disclose alcohol levels, Decanter magazine announced a similar policy. What do you think? Let me know your thoughts on alcohol levels in wines and disclosing them on labels.