High Alcohol Wines: Go Big or Go Home

bigI’ve heard it both ways: I’ve talked to smart, passionate Australian winemakers who say, “We  CAN’T make low alcohol wines: our grapes aren’t even ripe until they achieve the equivalent of 15% (give and take) alcohol.” And I’ve heard more “traditional” winemakers say, “No wine, under any circumstances, should be more than 13.5% alcohol.” So who’s right? Or is anyone really “right”?

I think this whole debate started with the Old World winemakers (you know, those guys in France, Italy, and Germany) who were jealous of our New World wines. They said our Cabernets and Chardonnays, not to even speak of our Zinfandels, were too high in alcohol to be palatable. They were used to these 12.5 or 13% wines that are light on the palate and sold as being the best “food wines.” That means they don’t have enough boldness to challenge the flavor of the foods they’re consumed with.

So OK, us New World wine types nodded our heads to the Old World guys, acknowledging that they must be the “experts” since they’ve been around a lot longer than we have, and then we cracked open a bottle of some lush, hedonistic Australian Shiraz that could be a meal in itself. And we LOVED it!

Here’s why: The New World of wine (read America, Australia, Argentina, Chile) have very different climactic conditions than the Old World. We  have more heat, more hang time, and less rain than the old World. We can achieve a level of ripeness in our grapes that the Old World couldn’t achieve in their wildest dreams! And ripeness, or higher brix (sugar content), translates into higher alcohol. We make higher alcohol wines because we CAN. In Europe, they CAN’T. But they’ve convinced the wine world (and us) that their wine is “correct” and ours is “wrong.”

I’d like to turn that on its ear. I say that if our New World winemakers can create wines with 15% alcohol that are balanced — i.e. have the fruit, acid and tannin to match the high alcohol — then we should bloody well enjoy them and pity the poor Europeans who have to drink their wimpy wines.

In fact, I want to start a movement. It’ll be called the “15% or Bust” Club.  We’ll promote our ripe, lush, BALANCED high-alcohol wines, and we won’t take any guff from the Old World types. After all, it’s Go Big or Go Home, right?

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