How to Collect Good Wine with High Alcohol Content

Good Wine with High Alcohol Content

Cheval Blanc is an example of a good wine with high alcohol content because it balances the alcohol with acidity and complex flavors. Photo Credit: Wikimedia CC user Jamain

 If you’re just getting started as a wine collector, you might have noticed that wine critics and other enthusiasts rarely, if ever, talk about wine’s intoxicating effects. They’ll praise a wine’s soft fruit, residual sugar, and long finish, but whenever the subject of alcohol content crops up, many professional wine critics talk about “balancing” or “taming” it. In other words, high alcohol content isn’t necessarily a desirable trait in the world of fine wine collecting. However, that doesn’t mean that you should avoid all high alcohol wines completely. Learning how to identify good wine with high alcohol content will not only make you a more knowledgeable collector, it will also enhance your wine drinking experience and help you add some delicious new wines to your cellar.

Why High Alcohol Wines Fell Out of Favor Among Critics

The primary reason why many critics dislike high alcohol wines is because these can be more difficult to taste, especially during a long wine tasting session. Intoxication is one factor that affects the taste of wine, which is why most professional wine tasters use a spittoon at the table. Even if you’re not in the middle of a long tasting session, too much alcohol in a wine can still have a negative effect on the way a wine tastes. A poorly-made wine with high alcohol content can taste “hot,” almost like jet fuel, and the taste of alcohol can also obscure subtle flavors in the wine and in food, if the wine is being drunk along with a meal. All this is why, when a wine’s alcohol content increases, quality winemaking becomes even more important.

Yet some wine critics still dislike high alcohol wines–sometimes it seems that all of them feel this way nowadays–even when they’re skillfully made by excellent producers. It’s likely this can be attributed to the fact that big, bold fruit bomb wines have fallen out of favor among many critics in recent years. The latest wine trends emphasize lighter, softer wines with just a touch of alcohol. Today, dense, high-alcohol wines aren’t nearly as popular as they once were. However, as with past trends in the wine world, this renewed emphasis on lighter wine styles likely won’t be permanent either. As you get started as a wine collector, it’s important to embrace the wines that you enjoy drinking, rather than trying to follow the latest trends. In short, if you enjoy good wine with high alcohol content, don’t feel bad about investing in and enjoying these wines.

The Benefits of High Alcohol Wines

Master of Wine Richard Hemming has joked that most wine critics hate talking about wine’s intoxicating effects, and yet if wineries were to make an alcohol-free wine that tasted absolutely perfect, critics would never buy it. He explains, “Another part of what attracts us to wine–let’s say generally between 12 percent and 15 percent of it, in fact–is alcohol, and it would be naive to deny this.” Generally, high alcohol wines are most enjoyable when you carve out time and space just to taste them. High alcohol wines can negatively impact your palate if you’re trying to taste a mix of low and high alcohol vintages at the same time, and food pairings often aren’t the best way to taste these wines, either. But, by focusing on just one bottle at a time with nothing else to distract from or complicate the experience, you can take long, detailed tasting notes that capture the way the wine evolves as you drink it. In the beginning, your palate will be fresh, and at this point your tasting notes might be the most objective. As you continue drinking the wine, though, your opinion of it may change. Alcohol has been shown to improve creativity, which might benefit your writing process. That said, remember to imbibe responsibly.

How to Look for Good Wine with High Alcohol Content

Although high alcohol content isn’t an inherently bad quality in wine, a balance of flavors is still important, and this is harder to achieve in higher alcohol wines. Before you shop for these wines, consider the typical alcohol by volume for the most common high alcohol wines on the market:

  • Syrah/Shiraz: 15 percent
  • Dessert wine (like Sauternes): 17 percent
  • Zinfandel: 16 percent
  • Port and other fortified wines: 20 percent or more

One important fact to remember is that not all of the wines usually made with high alcohol levels today were always made that way. It’s only relatively recently that winemakers have had to learn to balance the strong taste of alcohol with the other flavors in wine. In the past, winemakers would use an inferior species of yeast that would die if the alcohol content went above 13.5 percent ABV. They called this phenomenon “stuck fermentation.” Today, winemakers use stronger yeasts that can survive far higher ABV, meaning that more sugar gets converted into alcohol. The best producers have learned how to ferment to these high alcohol levels without sacrificing the more subtle flavors of the wine.

In order to find producers who make great wine in this style, you should first look at the varietal and note whether the wine is especially high in alcohol for that particular style. For instance, Pinot Noir doesn’t typically exceed 12 percent ABV, on average, so any Pinot Noir that’s higher in alcohol should be approached with caution. You’ll want to look for signs of softness or sweetness in the fruit, as this is one common flaw with Pinot Noir that’s too high in alcohol. Generally, as long as the wine has noticeable acidity or earthiness to balance out the sweetness, it’s a sign of a wine that’s worth your time.

If you want to collect good wine with high alcohol content, but you’re not sure where to start, here are a few vintage suggestions:

I recommend trying at least five examples of high alcohol wines that received perfect or near-perfect scores from critics. This will help you identify the traits that make these wines work. Once you’ve done that, try a few high-alcohol wines that weren’t as highly-rated. What did these wineries do differently compared to the highly-rated wines? Chances are, you’ll notice too much emphasis on sweetness, and not enough on complex flavors, like herbaceousness or earthiness. With a little practice, you’ll be able to identify which high alcohol wines you’ll want to keep coming back to, and which you’re better off skipping.

Whether you are starting your high-end wine collection or adding to an established portfolio, Vinfolio is your partner in buying, selling, and professional storage. We carry excellent investment wines from the best vineyards in California and across the globe. Contact us today to get access to the world’s finest wine.

Image by Jamain (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

At Vinfolio, we help our clients buy, sell, store, and manage their most treasured bottles of wine. But in our spare time, we’re just a group of passionate and slightly obsessed oenophiles--we love sharing a great glass of vintage Champagne, followed by a Burgundy, and then a Bordeaux, to get things started. We’re always obsessing over the latest (and oldest) vintages, and we want to share that knowledge and passion with our readers.