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Alcohol in Wine - A Question of Balance
Copyright 2003 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved. Originally printed July 25, 2003. For more information go to

Wine isn't wine without alcohol in it, as the lackluster quality of the few de-alcoholized wines on the market demonstrates.

Without getting into the physical and psychological effects of alcohol today, let's take a look at alcohol's effect on the taste of wine. Curiously enough, as with so many other things vinous, balance proves to be the key: In the opinion of most tasters, too much is just about as serious a flaw as too little; and like Baby Bear's porridge, the wine maker's effort is rewarded when he gets it just right.

So what's the taste of alcohol? Speaking of pure ethanol, the active ingredient in wine and other adult beverages, it's all but odorless and flavorless. Its presence in wine appears more as texture than aroma or flavor.

Wine with insufficient alcohol - below 11 percent by volume, in most cases - shows this lack in a thin, watery texture that seems to lack sufficient body. In cooler growing regions, achieving sufficient ripeness in the grapes can be a challenge, prompting regulations requiring a minimum alcohol level for quality wines, and inspiring such wine-making tricks as "chaptalization," adding sugar to the just-squeezed grapes to bring up the amount of alcohol in the finished wine.

Too much alcohol can be a problem, too, with an excess showing up as a warmth or even heat that seems to throw most table wines out of balance as their alcoholic level approaches and even exceeds 14 percent. Warmer growing regions (and warming climate around the world) can foster overripe grapes with a high sugar content that must either ferment out to startling levels of alcohol or remain as an undesired sweetness in the finished wine, prompting consumer complaints about "blockbuster" Zinfandels, Chardonnays and Shirazes that seem too big and powerful to go well with food. In the never-ending pursuit of wine-tasting pleasure, it's worth paying attention to the alcohol component when it speaks with a louder voice than the rest.


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