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High alcohol and diminishing wine styles

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When you walk the aisles of a wine shop, you see a sea of wines that all look about the same, what can you tell about the style of wine each bottle represents?

Not much.

Take red wines. Cabernet sauvignon is probably the best known red wine, but in today’s world not many of them smell and taste like the grape. Manipulation in both the vineyard and the winery “elevates” most cabs out of the varietal niche in which it once sat and into a style that is greatly afield from decades ago.

For many people, zinfandel is a popular choice, but there are pitfalls here as well. Take alcohol. In most zinfandels, to get the proper flavors, growers typically pick the fruit later than usual, and the additional sugars lead to a lot of alcohol.

In the 1970s, we thought of 13.5 percent as a lot of alcohol for zinfandel. I still have bottles of a 1974 zinfandel that says “Late Picked” on the front label and the alcohol listed is a then-outrageous 14.1 percent!

Today, a zin having 16 percent alcohol is not seen as particularly aberrant. Such wines can taste hot, harsh and sweet. Some actually are sweet.

And speaking of sweetness, that’s another pitfall that wineries never tell us about. I tried a Livermore Valley cabernet the other day and got a rude shock: It was sweet. There was no indication on the label that was the kind of wine I was getting.

This wasn’t an accident. The winery making this wine knew well what it was doing and did not disclose on its label anything about how the wine could taste. At least with alcohol, the law requires that it be stated on the label.

But is that statement accurate? I believe it is accurate for all wines below 14 percent, since the tax on over 14 percent wines goes up, and the government monitors such things because to fail to pay the proper tax is risky. Winery licenses have been threatened for such violations.

With wines whose labels say they have alcohols of more than 14.1 percent, the law says the statement carries a 1 percent leeway factor, so a wine whose label says it has 15.2 percent alcohol, in theory could be in compliance as low as 14.2 percent and as high as 16.2 percent. Remember that phrase “in theory.”

Some years ago, I determined that the government has no penalty whatever for wines with more than 14 percent alcohol that are out of compliance. As a result, for all practical purposes, government officials do not analyze most expensive, high-alcohol wines. If they did, they might be shocked.

A good friend and wine-maker not long ago was curious about this, so he sent samples of six expensive California wines to a lab for analysis. Each of the wines had labels that said the wines had alcohols in the high 14 percents. The lab results came back weeks later. The alcohols on all the wines were about 17 percent.

At that level of alcohol, each of the wines would taste slightly sweet even if no sugar were present.

As a result of this escalation of alcohol around the world, many wines now taste like one another and less like the varietals from which they come.

So merlot is like cabernet, and both are like petite sirah, and red wine blends are all about the same: big, chewy, soft, low in acidity, and not very appealing with food.

Next week, we have a look at white wines and pinot noirs, and what we can expect from them.

Dan Berger lives in Sonoma County, where he publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a weekly wine newsletter. Write to him at


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