High alcohol 1 of 2

People drink wine because it tastes delicious, can complement food, may have health benefits. And, oh yes, because it has alcohol in it.

Funny thing about alcohol: wine critics wage war over the amount. For some, if you enjoy a pleasant pinot with 12.5 percent alcohol, you are a discerning sophisticate. If you prefer a full-bodied Barossa Valley syrah with 15.5 percent alcohol, you obviously are a knuckle-dragging lout; don’t come near my daughter.

Huh? All this over three percentage points?

Alcohol happens in wine during fermentation when yeast converts grape sugars into alcohol. The riper the grapes, more the sugar, higher the alcohol. Natural fermentation can get you to about 16.5 percent before alcohol kills the yeast making the alcohol.

California, Southern Rhône, parts of Australia have sun-drenched, long growing seasonsideal for producing ripe, sugar-rich grapes. Warming climate and changes in agriculture techniques caused a nine percent increase in sugar levels in California grapes during past 30 years.

Robert Parker, world’s most influential wine critic, loves this about California wines. He asserts the strength of California wines “lies in power, exuberance, and gloriously ripe fruit.” He awards high scores to wines that flaunt those characteristics.

When California wine makers such as Robert Mondavi’s son, Tim, held back alcohol to make more French-style wines, Parker assailed Mondavi for “going against… Mother Nature. If you want to make French wine, do it in France.”

Lower-alcohol proponents shot back that high-alcohol wines were “raisined garbage.”

Take a deep breath, folks. More on alcohol wars next week.


• Cline Ancient Vines Zinfandel. Black cherries, jammy & juicy. California. 15% alcohol. $16

• Michael David Sixth Sense Syrah. Peppermint nose; cherries, blueberries, red currant; vanilla, long finish. 16% alcohol. $16

• Perrin & Fils Gigondas La Gille. Plums, blackberries, black fruits, long finish. 14.5% alcohol. France. $32

• Enkidu Wine Petite Sirah Deiner Ranch. Black fruits galore, great structure, supple tannins, powerful full body. 15.5% alcohol. $35