Ever get the sense that American wines every year get bigger, less subtle and more alcoholic?
South Florida reader Linda Embry does.
“As I’ve grown older, I’ve preferred wines with an alcohol content lower than 13.5 and 14 percent. Can you recommend some good wines with low alcohol content, for example, 9 or 10 percent? I think a lot of baby boomers would be interested.”
She’s right. Decades ago, most wines were made with 12 percent alcohol, 13 percent at the most. These days a good chardonnay might be 15 percent, a hearty red zinfandel a whopping 17 percent. Some are so full-bodied, rich and fruity you can’t drink a second glass, and don’t want even the first glass with food because the wine will overwhelm it.
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The increase in alcohol started in the 1980s when powerful American wine critics started heaping praise on the occasional French red Bordeaux or California chardonnay with 14 percent or more. And the fruitier the better.
Winemakers, eager to sell their wares, began urging vineyard managers to bring them riper grapes, with more sugar to turn into alcohol. Alcohol adds heartiness and body to wine, and ripeness increases fruitiness, so an “American” or “international” style was born. The wines became big, bold and, many felt, bombastic.
And utterly devoid of finesse, said traditional wine fans. It wasn’t just American wines. European and other wine fans complained that Americans’ huge buying power was imposing our tastes on winemakers worldwide.
What makes wine high or low in alcohol? It’s simple. When natural grape sugar comes in contact with yeast, it sets off a chemical reaction that creates alcohol. With grapes of average ripeness, the resulting alcohol level is about 12 percent. Pick the grapes less ripe, the alcohol is lower; pick them riper, it’s higher.
Today, to the relief of many, some American winemakers are pulling back, seeking to make wines that are subtler, easier to drink, better with food. They’re purposely crafting wines in the 12 to 13 percent alcohol range again.
In California, Inman Family Wines makes a Russian River chardonnay that is crisp, lively and dry, and only 12.2 percent alcohol. In Washington state’s Columbia Valley, Woodhouse Wine Estates makes a dry, white “Picnic Blend” wine at 12.5 percent.
The tasting notes below show more of the differences between high-alcohol and low-alcohol wines.
In some cases, particular grapes tend to make low-alcohol wines. Both here and in Europe, riesling wines always have had low alcohol levels — sometimes only 7 to 8 percent. A tip for buying: A riesling with 12 percent alcohol will be fairly dry. One with 11 percent will be lightly sweet. One with 9 percent alcohol or below will be sweet. Chateau Ste. Michelle makes a “Sweet Riesling” in Washington’s Columbia Valley with 11 percent alcohol.
Moscato, the grape and wine that’s soaring in popularity with 20-somethings, is a sweet, citrus-flavored, often lightly fizzy wine from Italy and now California that can go as low as 7 percent alcohol. That’s because its fermentation is stopped by artificial means before the grape sugar is all used up. Mirassou in California makes a sweet, fruity moscato with 7.28 percent alcohol.
Wherever they’re made, whatever their price, Champagnes, sparkling wines and sparkling proseccos are often low in alcohol, because winemakers seek less-ripe grapes to achieve the crisp acids that give power to the bubbles. Scharffenberger Cellars Nonvintage Brut Excellence Sparkling wine from California’s Mendocino County has a low (for these days) alcohol level of 12 percent.
Beyond U.S. growers
Outside the States there remains a large group of winemakers who never succumbed to the powerful international style. Many traditional winemakers kept picking the grapes at average ripeness and making 12 percent wines.
In France’s Alsace region, winemaker Gustave Lorentz makes a rosé from pinot noir grapes that’s a lean 11.8 percent alcohol. He’s seeking lightness, freshness in a wine that can be drunk with food or by itself as an aperitif.
In Italy’s Tuscany region, traditional Chianti wines can be relatively low in alcohol. Piccini’s 2014 red wine is made with the traditional Chianti grapes sangiovese and ciliegiolo, and it’s a relatively low 12.5 percent alcohol. For those who want a fuller, bolder Tuscan wine, vintners have added such international grapes as cabernet sauvignon, merlot and others. This creates a “Super Tuscan” wine that can be as high as 14 percent alcohol.
In Italy’s northern Piedmont region, the brachetto grape makes a sweet, sparkling red wine that’s a favorite of many Americans. Castello Banfi makes “Rosa Regale” in that style.
In South America, many wineries have joined the high-alcohol movement to help their sales in the big U.S. market. Others have kept to the traditional, lower-alcohol way. In Chile, Argento winery makes a “Cool Climate Selection” pinot grigio with a low 12.8 percent alcohol in the high-altitude UCO Valley in the Mendoza region. Higher altitudes often produce less sugar, hence wines with lower alcohol.
In Australia, Lindeman’s winery makes a popular red blend of shiraz, cabernet sauvignon and muscat gordo (a white grape) that’s sweet and low in alcohol at 9 percent. In cool New Zealand, winemaker Kim Crawford makes a crisp sauvignon blanc with a low 12.5 percent alcohol, with grapes from hillsides in Marlborough’s Wairau Valley.
Both styles have fans
Still, big, powerful, alcoholic wines have legions of avid fans both in the States and beyond. They want bold flavors and firm tannins to go well with red meat and other flavorful dishes. Alcohol helps make a full-bodied, opulent, super-fruity wine.
In California’s North Coast, Juxtapoz Wines is making a powerful red wine with syrah, zinfandel, petite sirah, malbec and cabernet sauvignon with a hefty 15.1 percent alcohol. Renwood Winery’s blend of zinfandel, syrah and petite sirah tops that with 16.4 percent alcohol.
In the Napa Valley, Castello di Amorosa makes a chardonnay with 15.3 percent alcohol. To further the richness, it ages the wine in French oak barrels. And it puts 40 percent of the wine through a secondary “malolactic” fermentation that turns sharp acids into more mellow ones. Finally, it stirs the wine in barrels to recirculate the yeast sediment called “lees” to increase the richness the sediment imparts to the wine.
In the long run it’s likely that both styles will continue.
Faithful reader Linda Embry can find both dry whites and reds in the 12 to 12.5 percent range. But if she wants that lower 9 to 11 percent, she probably will have to turn to sweeter wines.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Every time I write about sweet red wines, I get emails from fans thanking me for giving them the intellectual cover to buy and drink what they really like.
Fred Tasker: firstname.lastname@example.org
Fred’s Wine List
2013 Inman Family Chardonnay, Russian River Valley, 12.2 percent alcohol (100 percent chardonnay): aromas and flavors of lemons, green apples and minerals, crisp, lively and tart, $35.
2013 Castello di Amorosa Chardonnay, Napa Valley, 15.3 percent alcohol (100 percent chardonnay): aromas of toasted oak and vanilla, lush flavors of ripe pears, hazelnuts and oranges, full body, creamy texture, long finish; $29.
2014 “Le Rose” Pinot Noir rosé wine, AOC Alsace, 11.8 percent alcohol (100 percent pinot noir): light and fresh and crisp, with flavors of ripe strawberries and raspberries; $20.
2013 Stoller Family Estate Pinot Noir, Dundee Hills, 12.2 percent alcohol: floral aromas, flavors of ripe tart cherries and spice, lively and crisp; $25.
2014 Mirassou Pinot Grigio, Calif., 12.5 percent alcohol (97 percent pinot grigio, 2 percent canelli, 1 percent chenin blanc): lightly sweet, with aromas and flavors of yellow apples, lemons and citrus, crisp acids; $12.
2014 Mirassou Moscato, Calif., 7.28 percent alcohol (100 percent muscat canelli): lush and sweet, with intense aromas and flavors of oranges, peaches and honey; $12.
2014 Piccini Chianti “Orange” DOCG, Tuscany, 12.5 percent alcohol (95 percent sangiovese, 5 percent ciliegiolo): aromas and flavors of plums and other red fruits, soft tannins; $11.
2014 Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, New Zealand, 12.5 percent alcohol (100 percent sauvignon blanc): aromas and flavors of lemons and green melons, crisp, dry and lean; $20.
2014 Lindeman’s “Bin 46” Sweet Red Wine, South Eastern Australia, 9 percent alcohol (shiraz, cabernet sauvignon, muscat gordo): light red color, aromas and flavors of sweet red raspberries; $10.
Nonvintage Schaffenberger Cellars “Brut Excellence” sparkling wine, Mendocino County, 12 percent alcohol (50 percent chardonnay, 40 percent pinot noir): lots of tiny, long-lasting bubbles, crisp and lively, with aromas and flavors of lemons, hazelnuts and caramel; $20.
2012 Juxtapoz Wines red blend, North Coast, 15.1 percent alcohol (55 percent syrah, 23 percent infandel, 9 percent petite sirah, 6 percent malbec, 4 percent cabernet sauvignon, 3 percent others): big and full and hearty, with aromas and flavors of black plums and mocha, big, ripe tannins, full body and long finish; $25.
Nonvintage Chloe Prosecco DOC, Italy, 11 percent alcohol (100 percent glera): floral aromas, crisp and dry, with flavors of lemons, limes and minerals; $17.
2012 Chateau Ste. Michelle “Harvest Select” Sweet Riesling, Columbia Valley, Wash., 11 percent alcohol: light and lively, fairly sweet, with aromas and flavors of pears and minerals; $10.