A bottle of de-alcoholized wine tempted me at my local grocery store a couple of months ago.
So, I bought it, thinking of my dad, who is quite often the family’s designated driver. We opened it one night. We sniffed. We swirled. We tasted.
And we poured most of it down the drain.
Other than the colour —dark purple-red — any resemblance to real wine was purely coincidental.
We returned to merrily drinking a good pinot noir, and all was well.
When it comes to wine, apparently, we prefer ours with a buzz.
But what exactly does alcohol contribute to wine?
A lot more than just the ability to make you drunk, say experts.
Everywhere in the world, alcohol in booze is measured by volume (sometimes abbreviated as ABV), and is defined as the amount of ethanol found in 100 millilitres of liquid (wine, spirits, beer, whatever.) You can see it listed as the percentage on a wine bottle’s label.
Alcohol occurs naturally in wine, the result of fermentation. A winemaker adds yeast to grapes, or relies on natural yeasts found in the air and on those grapes. When the grapes ferment, the yeast eats the sugars found in the juice, and grows. As the yeast grows, it creates carbon dioxide and alcohol as byproducts.
That alcohol is one of the ingredients wine needs to taste good.
“It also carries flavours, which is important, right?”
Of course, any wine lover would say. Alcohol also acts as a preservative, allowing wine to age and to be stable on store shelves.
But these days, some winemakers are being criticized for making wines that are too high in alcohol — higher than they typically were 20 or 30 years ago.
There are a few reasons for the change. Many blame influential wine critics — particularly Americans such as Robert M. Parker — who give their highest scores to wines with intense flavours and high alcohol levels. (Parker’s own term “hedonistic fruit bomb,” given to a big California red blend, says it all.) Good scores equal high sales and therefore cash in a winemaker’s pocket.
Others in the wine business say climate change has also contributed to alcohol levels in wine. Warmer climates such as California typically have higher alcohol wines than Germany’s wine regions, which are considered to be cooler climate.
“Global warming means that the grapes can achieve more sugar at harvest,” says Harfield.
Controlling a wine’s alcohol level starts in the vineyard. Some grapes — riesling, for instance — ripen when their sugar levels are lower, so the resulting wine will be relatively low in alcohol. Others, such as petite sirah, require higher levels of sugar to taste ripe. The fruit must hang longer, and the resulting wine will likely be higher in alcohol, says Belinda Kemp, senior scientist and oenologist at Brock University’s Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute.
“You have to pick when you reach a certain sugar level in your grapes,” Kemp says.
“But sometimes you can reach the sugar level, but you might not have the flavours you want yet. That’s when people leave the grapes out a little longer.”
But while the big-wig critics may want high alcohol, the consumer trend is the opposite — perhaps for health reasons. Low-alcohol wines reduce the risk of booze-associated health issues, and they are generally lower in calories.
What’s a winemaker to do? Some rely on science to remove alcohol from their wines, but that can be risky in terms of quality, Kemp says.
“Some flavours don’t come out in a wine until the alcohol starts being made, as the yeast converts sugar to alcohol,” says Kemp.
“If you’re removing alcohol, you can be removing other good things, as well, like flavours and aromas.”
Balance between alcohol, sugars and aromas is key. When a wine has too little alcohol compared to those other components, critics and sommeliers may describe it as being simple, light or thin.
Too much alcohol compared to those other components, and they may describe it as “out of balance,” or “hot.”
But balance is subjective; one person’s out-of-balance fruit bomb may be another’s wine of the year.
And some wines simply need lots of alcohol to be what they’re supposed to be. For example, port is made by fortifying wine — adding neutral spirits to it — to bring the alcohol level to around 20 per cent or so.
“(Alcohol’s) role is both as a preservative, in order to keep the port stable during ageing, but also it plays a very important role organoleptically in balancing the sweetness of port,” says David Guimaraens, head winemaker for Taylor Fladgate and the Fladgate Partnership.
In other words, great wines can be naturally high in alcohol: Portugal’s famous ports, for example, or Italian amarone or California zinfandel. (Check the percentage on the label: 14.5 per cent or higher is high.)
Great wines can be found that are naturally low in alcohol, too. Consider German rieslings, Italian moscato d’Asti, Prosecco and Austrian gruner veltliner. They’re all wonderfully flavourful, and typically under 12 per cent.
But many other low-alcohol and de-alcoholized wines are made in the lab. “Regular” wine is distilled — essentially filtered — to remove its alcohol.
“It's really difficult (and expensive) to completely remove all the alcohol, and usually there will still be traces of it in the final product,” according to Dr. Vinny from Wine Spectator.
That’s too much effort for too little taste, as far as I’m concerned. If I can’t have real wine, I’d rather just drink grape juice.
A version of this story first appeared in City Palate.