Alcohol and wine: What’s in a number?
First published in The Irish Times, Saturday 6th October, 2018.
For many wine drinkers, the most important part of a wine label is not the producer name nor the grape variety, but the percentage alcohol. A decade ago, big turbo-charged wines were all the rage; now we are all looking for something a bit less alcoholic. But do we think light and elegant but actually prefer something a little more full-bodied? Lynne Coyle MW, wine director at O’Briens, believes that while many wine drinkers ask for wines that are lighter in alcohol, in practice we prefer wines with a little more oomph.
“At tastings many consumers love the higher alcohol red wines, but feel they should be drinking something lighter. I am not sure if it is because of something they have read, or they want to drink less alcohol for health reasons, but it is not being driven by the flavour or style.”
Wine is all a matter of balance. You will barely notice the alcohol in a hearty 15 per cent red provided it has enough fruit, acidity and other components. If you feel an alcoholic burn, then something, usually the fruit, is missing.
The hottest wine-producing regions are responsible for the biggest wines, and the coolest tend to make the lightest, most refreshing wines. A producer in a warm region can harvest earlier to keep sugar (and therefore alcohol levels) down; in cooler areas, a winemaker can pick later, or even add sugar to boost alcohol by 1-2 per cent.
Low alcohol wines (typically 5-8 per cent alcohol) do not seem to have a market in Ireland, possibly because too often they are very sweet and just don’t taste like wine. In my book, a wine of 10-12.5 per cent qualifies as light, 13-14 per cent as medium, and anything over 14 per cent as full-bodied. All wine labels must state the percentage alcohol by volume. However, a wine producer is allowed a variation of 0.5 per cent either way, so a wine labelled 12.5 per cent could actually be 13 per cent (or 12 per cent). I sometimes wonder how strictly the law is applied.
A light red wine will taste fresher and more acidic; it has a very different structure to a more full-bodied wine and can be served cool or even chilled. But we really enjoy the richness, texture and warmth that is provided by a little more alcohol. As winter approaches, we start looking at the bigger reds, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Amarone, Bordeaux and Australian Shiraz. White wine is a very different market; the fashion is for zingy, fresh unoaked wines at 12.5–13 per cent all year round.
However, as Coyle points out: “Wine is not meant to be consumed on its own for hours on end. It should be drunk with food, and alongside water.” Then the level of alcohol matters far less.
This week, four perfectly balanced medium-bodied red wines.
Bons Ventos 2016, Casa Santos Lima, VR Lisboa
A big smiling mouthful of wine; layers of smooth ripe dark fruits with rounded tannins on the finish. This will go down nicely with most red or white meats, grilled lamb chops, or baked mushrooms.
From Bradley’s Off-Licence, Cork, bradleysofflicence.ie; McHughs, Kilbarrack Road and Malahide Road, mchughs.ie
Cuvée des Abeilles 2015, Château d’Auzanet, Bordeaux (organic)
This is an elegant, toothsome Bordeaux with spicy aromas and very agreeable balanced blackberry and red cherry fruits. Nice price too. Steak, served with a red wine and mushroom sauce, would be the local favourite.
From Mitchell & Son, chq, Sandycove, and Avoca, Kilmacanogue and Dunboyne, mitchellandson.com; Myles Doyle, Gorey; Wilde & Green, Dublin 6; The Wine House, Trim
Bardolino 2016, Guerrieri Rizzardi, Veneto
Charming sweet/sour morello cherry fruits with a silky, almost lush, texture and a well-rounded finish. Recommended with prosciutto/salami and some crusty sourdough.
From O’Briens, obrienswine.ie
Pegos Claros Reserva, Palmela, Portugal
Very moreish sweet, soft, ripe jammy fruits with exotic spices that evolve and improve with every sip. A warming stew of beans, pork and chorizo.
From Jus de Vine, Portmarnock, jusdevine.ie; La Touche, Greystones, latouchewines4u.ie; Grape & Grain, Leopardstown; The Wine Shop, Perrystown; The Wine Well, Dunboyne; Kelly’s, Clontarf, kellysofflicence.ie; Martin’s Off-Licence, Clontarf, martinsofflicence.ie; O’Briens Wines, obrienswine.ie; Donnybrook Fair, donnybrookfair.ie; Baggot Street Wines, Baggot Street, baggotstreetwines.com; The Corkscrew, Chatham Street, thecorkscrew.ie; Fresh outlets, freshthegoodfoodmarket.ie; D-Six, Harold’s Cross, Dublin 6; Matson’s, Grange, Bandon; Redmonds, Ranelagh, redmonds.ie; Morton’s, Ranelagh, mortons.ie; MacGuinness Wines, Dundalk, dundalkwines.com; Liston’s, Camden Street, listonsfoodstore.ie; Red Island Wine, Co Skerries; The Coach House, Ballinteer; Nectar Wines, Sandymount
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