How much alc./vol. is too much alc./vol.?

With better viticultural techniques and riper fruit comes, in an almost inescapable logic, wines with higher alcohol content. With big New World syrahs, grenaches and zinfandels reaching towards 16% alcohol by volume, and chardonnays and viogniers going for broke at 15%, a question almost inescapably comes to mind: how much is too much?

My definite, absolute answer on the subject? It depends.

I had an awful time, a few days ago, with a Domaine de la Solitude Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2003. The nose was dominated by alcohol, as well as the mouth feel, and though there was a bit of jammy fruit and a touch of tannin in there, it was quickly rounded off by, well, more alcohol. I remember tasting a fantastic 1995 from that Domaine, several years ago, and it was quite full of character. A 1996 vintage, also quite well-built, even felt a little austere, compared to a Cigare Volant 1996 from Randall Grahm, tasted side-by-side over a lovely leg of lamb.

Of course, 2003 was the year of the mother of all heat waves in France, which threw a lot of winemakers off their game. In this particular case, you get the feeling that the winemaker was caught off guard by grapes that had ripened too quickly, and probably stalled under the August heat. Ripening too quickly raises the sugars but does nothing for tannins and phenolics – in other words for what gives the wine structure, complexity, etc. Clearly, here, a 15% alcohol level was an indication that things went just too quickly and got out of hand.

Yet just around the same time I faced this Solitude disappointment, I also tasted a big syrah from Barrel 27, whose wines  I actually collaborate on importing into Quebec through Insolite Importation. The alcohol level on the beast of a wine called the Head Honcho, their top cuvée, is well over 15%, yet it’s nowhere near disappointing. It’s quite a mouthful, with loads of jammy fruit, generous tannins, lots of substance. Same grape, lots of heat, just like the Domaine de la Solitude, but yet, the alcohol is balanced out by the fleshy, generous fruit of long-ripened grapes. Barrel 27 favors long hang times on the grape, often harvesting very late in the fall, and it does seem to give the grapes time to round themselves out.

Believe it or not, I also had a similar experience with an Oregon pinot noir from La Bête, which was well over 15% alcohol but didn’t feel like that at all. Somehow, there was enough flesh there too, even with the much more delicate pinot noir, to round things out and make the wines very pleasant. La Bête pinot noirs always feel balanced and complex, with very typical aromas of cherries and good acidity. They are sometimes unusual, but they never feel over the top.

Zinfandel is also another example, with vines often reaching over 16% alcohol, yet never feeling thin or being dominated by the alcohol in the wine. There’s just a lot of everything going on.

The one things the high alcohol wines will not provide, however, is freshness. Balance is possible, obviously, but not freshness. High alcohol means very ripe grapes, which can very rarely correspond to good acidity levels. And even if there is a decent level of acidity, it gets covered up by the alcohol. And without acidity, there can be no refreshing feeling to any wine.

Often, I do find the big wines pleasant and fun, even serious and complex in certain cases. But in the end, they’re just not quite as fun to drink as the lighter styles (and I’m not even getting into the problem of brettanomyces that high alcohol favors in wines). A single glass of a big syrah or a big cab will make you feel full rather quickly. As a general rule, comparatively lighter, fresher wines leave you wanting more. And I’d rather finish a bottle feeling thirsty than put the cork back on because I just can’t take any more.