The alcohol in wine has been causing quite a buzz lately, and not just the kind that makes you want to hug everyone. One of the hottest issues in the industry these days is wine’s rising ABV (alcohol by volume). Certainly not a new trend, alcohol levels have been climbing for decades. However, some recent decisions by retailers and sommeliers to not stock wines over 14 percent ABV, along with a law passed in the UK mandating restaurants to publish all ABVs on their wine lists, are getting those who see ABV as merely a number all hot and bothered.
A wine’s alcohol comes from the ripeness of the grapes that made it. Riper grapes mean more sugar to be converted into alcohol during fermentation. Alcohol adds body and a perception of sweetness to wines, so when the ABV increases, these qualities are amplified. Sounds appealing, until every wine starts tasting like brandied plum pudding. But, there’s a palate out there for these fruit bombs pushing 16 percent ABV, and it belongs to the world’s most influential wine critic, Robert Parker, whose scores tend to go up as ABVs do. Producers caught on and began letting grapes over-ripen in order to make wines so high in alcohol that they should come with a designated driver. Parker’s allegiant followers buy by score, so even sun-challenged winemakers began producing walloping wines. And now, with what’s been termed “The Parker Effect,” many wines once known for elegant restraint (Burgundies) and quiet strength (Bordeaux) are becoming clumsy, characterless versions of themselves.
How much does this matter to wine drinkers who don’t know their ABVs from their ABCs? Considering the fact that higher alcohol wine gets you drunk faster, it should matter to anyone interested in getting home safely. Without the boring math, the difference between having two glasses of 12.5 percent wine and two glasses of 15.8 percent wine within an hour is 25 percent more alcohol—and the potential to go from within the legal limit to beyond it. Richmond-based wine importer Bartholomew Broadbent believes that consumers should be informed of a wine’s ABV before ordering it and hopes to see a law passed for American restaurants like the one passed in the UK.
“I check the ABV on a wine before the sommelier opens it and I turn it away, more often than not, if it is 15 percent or higher,” he says. “It would save time for them and aggravation for me if I knew the level before ordering it.” For him, it has nothing to do with balance. “A 7 percent wine can be just as balanced as a 16 percent one, but if I can safely have one extra glass of wine a night by buying a 12.5 percent wine versus a 14.5 percent wine, I will always prefer an evening spent with a lower alcohol wine.”
Should it be the restaurant’s duty to provide full disclosure, or simply be a case of buyer beware? Keswick Hall’s sommelier, Richard Hewitt, expects that people who order wine are aware of how it may influence them. “It seems a bit rude to publish ABVs—that would imply that people are not responsible or educated enough to know that alcohol levels vary.” At Keswick, ABVs are discussed in terms of food pairings, though, since a 15 percent Chardonnay isn’t going to match the chef’s hamachi crudo any better than a shot of Jameson would.
And how about those sommeliers and retailers who won’t let beefy wines past their velvet ropes? Rajat Parr, wine director for a San Francisco restaurant group, stirred up controversy when he banned any Pinot Noir or Chardonnay above 14 percent alcohol from his own restaurant. To Parr, it’s all about the balance in these Burgundian grapes, but his decision got him an online slap on the wrist from Parker, who suggested that “arbitrary cutoffs make no sense, and are nothing more than a form of wine fascism.” An interesting criticism from a man who’s made his living and ruined others’ by way of the arbitrary. Fortunately, some retailers, like Tastings of Charlottesville owner Bill Curtis, stay above it all. “I’ve spent my life goading people into exercising their own judgement when I sell wine and the ABV is clearly printed on every label.” And, for those of us who find the number inconsequential and just don’t care? Well, we can just ignore it and enjoy the buzz.