Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Elements in Wine: Alcohol

This is lesson 2 about wine elements, so today I will focus on something you like the most about drinking wine: Alcohol.

Alcohol is a byproduct of wine fermentation,  the boozy feeling you get after a second glass of wine, you know what I’m talking about, the one that takes all inhibitions away and makes you relax. But how does this magic happen? Everything starts in the vineyard, as grapes mature their sugar levels increase and their acidity level decrease, when the grapes ripen, i.e reach the perfect balance between sugar and acid, it will be time for the winegrower to harvest. Sometimes choosing the best date is excruciating and quite a dilemma, should we leave the fruit a bit longer to reach even more ripeness? or should we move fast since rains are in the horizon?  that could be catastrophic for any wine, since rains will dilute our precious juice to be.

So, after harvest (sometimes by using machines or by hand), and after a pre-selection of the best grapes, it's fermentation time, the chemical process in which yeasts known as Saccharomyces Cerevisiae will eat all the sugar and convert our grape juice, in wine. These yeasts will be a blend of two, a)Natural yeasts that are already present in the grapes’ skins and b)Lab created yeasts. Winemakers do this to obtain special aromas in wines and to make sure the fermentation takes place without problems. Natural yeasts will produce the first 4% of the alcohol and the rest will be produced with the help of the Lab yeasts.

It requires in general, 17 grams of sugar to produce 1 liter of alcohol for a white wine and 19 grams of sugar to produce the same for a red wine.
What happens in cool climates where grapes don’t usually reach the minimum sugar levels? How do we get alcohol?  Many appellations allowed what is called Chaptalization and this is the addition of beet sugar to the must to increase the alcohol level in any wine. This is a practice used in Germany and Austria, for example. Now in a moderate and warm climates, alcohol levels will be reached easily and naturally.

By the way, when I talk about wines with low, medium and high alcohol, I’m talking about wines that have between 8.5 to 11,5% in the first case, 12 to 13% in the second case and everything above 13% will be considered high alcohol. I will add one more category to this list, which is the fortified wines, such as sherry or port, here extra alcohol is added during wine production and alcohol levels can go high up from 15 up to 22 %.

So, how do we feel/detect alcohol in our palates? easy, after you swirl the wine in your mouth, you will feel a burning/ warm sensation on your throat, that is the alcohol (especially when it’s high this is more noticeable). You will feel alcohol as body/ wine texture,  as weight on your palate. Light wines will be felt similar to skim milk, medium body wines will be felt similar to regular milk  and heavy body wines will be felt as heavy cream.
Personally, I feel alcohol in my stomach, I feel it as a huge blow, even though I spit my wines (when tasting professionally), a tiny bit always go down my stomach and it hits you like a burning bomb, that is how I always can tell when they lie about alcohol levels on labels, 13% and up will make the blow even bigger. 
When you are dealing with fortified wines, it will be much easier because with one sniff you will be able to smell the alcohol coming from your glass.

Of all the wine elements, alcohol is also noticeable before you even drink a sip, just by looking at the wine. Do this, swirl your wine in your glass and look at the drops and how they fall down, these are called legs, the thicker and denser these are, the higher the alcohol in the wine and the bigger the body of the wine. 

Certain grape varieties reach high alcohol levels easier than others, some of these are: Syrah, Grenache, Malbec, Zinfandel, Cabernet. In whites, big alcohol can be found in Chardonnay of warm climates. But more important than the grapes, are the locations where these are grown, high alcohol can only come from warm and hot climates, so south of everything it will be: South of France appellations, South Italian appellations, most of Spain (Priorat, Alicante, Jumilla) and Portugal (Douro), California, Australia (almost all appellations), Argentina (Mendoza and Salta).

So are you ready to taste alcohol in wine?  Here are my recommendations, let me know which ones you prefer the best. Remember that according to the TTB, producers can lie 1 % of alcohol in their labels, and most of them lie down so these wines listed below may have these alcohols or 1% more.

Recommended Wines:

Po de Poeira, Douro 2017 $25  14% AVB
Piatelli Malbec 2016 $16 14.9 % AVB
Bedrock Zinfandel Old Vines 2017 $22 14.3% AVB

Cheers! Silvina