No – I’m not referring to the price this time, but to the amount of it in many bottles of wine on the shelves today. The one in the picture has 14.5%, but wines even stronger than that are no longer a rarity (I’ve seen 15.5% and 16% recently); to put that in context, these wines have acquired roughly the same alcohol content naturally as a Fino sherry to which extra alcohol is added.
It wasn’t always like that. When I first started enjoying wine many years ago (OK, I admit it, more than 40 years ago!), 11 and 12% alcohol was normal and the occasional 13% bottle – perhaps a Châteauneuf du Pape – was considered a real monster. If you wanted more alcohol than that, you were into fortified wines, like sherry or port, or spirits. But times have changed and alcohol levels in wine have gradually crept up and up. Why is that?
There are a number of reasons: Global warming and new methods and ideas in the vineyard mean that grapes are now picked riper than previously; riper grapes contain more sugar and more sugar allows the fermentation process to create more alcohol. And in the winery, many producers now use more efficient yeasts that convert more of the sugar to alcohol. As these changes kicked in, producers found that customers liked the higher alcohol wines; they are fuller and richer in your mouth and seem to have a hint of sweetness about them. So they pushed the levels a little further – and then a little further still to the point where, now, 13 and 13.5% is typical and a wine with (only) 12% alcohol can taste quite lean.
Have things gone too far? For me, the answer is probably yes. Although high alcohol wines will sometimes work best with the food I’m eating, I also enjoy more delicate styles – wines with elegance and subtlety. Happily, some producers are taking note, picking their grapes earlier and looking for cooler sites as ways of reining back on the alcohol. But are the days of the 14.5% wine over? I don’t think so! Just look around!