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A question I’m often asked is “How do I know if a wine is good?”
Here’s a hint: usually, it’s not the varietal! Whether or not you know it, most people like styles of wine, not a particular varietal. They’ve just found their style in a particular Cabernet or Chardonnay and believe that’s the kind of wine they like. Styles of wine can be gauged in many ways: dry or sweet, full bodied or light, fruity, earthy, the list goes on and on.
The first thing I do is check the alcohol level. Few things affect the outcome of a wine like alcohol. It does much more than get you tipsy or drunk; it affects body, weight, texture, and fruit/sweet levels in wine. Varietals affect these things too, but they are generally limited to the nature of the grape. You adjust the volume of a wine with alcohol.
Typically, wine with an alcohol level of 9%-13% will be lighter in style, have less body, less fruit flavor and more acidity (acidity=balance). Be careful though, there are low alcohol wines that taste cloyingly sweet (I’m looking at you Washington Riesling…), these wines lack the acidity to balance the remaining sugar that wasn’t consumed by yeast. A wine in the 13%-14% range should show moderate levels of body, fruit and acidity (generally more balanced). Wines in the 14%-15+% range will have full body, texture, mouthfeel; and a riper fruit/sweet feel. They can also tend toward the stewed or over-ripe feel (think red zinfandel, some syrahs/shirazs and big cabs.)
Note: The alcohol level on a bottle of wine can be found on the front of the label (around the perimeter) or on the back of the label towards the bottom.
In the meantime, lets dig a little deeper into how alcohol gets into wine. Alcohol starts as sugar in the grape. The longer the grape can sit on the vine and enjoy that warm sun, the more sugar the grape will have. After harvest, the grapes are fermented in large vats by adding yeast. The yeast eats the sugar as food and excretes alcohol as a byproduct (different strains of yeast can also affect the end flavors in the wine). So, the more sugar in the grape, the more alcohol can end up in the finished product.
Winemakers can affect the amount of alcohol in their finished wine by controlling fermentation times and temperatures. If they want their wine to be full dry (no leftover sugar) they let fermentation run its course. If they choose to make sweeter wines or end up somewhere in the middle, they stop fermentation early, while there’s still sugar left in the wine.
Finally, it’s up to the customer to buy a few bottles and enjoy the process of deciding for themselves. Of course, that is best done with the help family and friends, cheese, fruit, dinner and the making of great memories. Cheers!
Jeff Champion, Owner of Rae’s Place Fine Wine Boutique
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