Alcohol: Harold McGee

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We do not represent wines that conform to the conventional canon, i.e.,  wines so dark that you can't see the bottom of the glass; wines with jammy, overripe fruit; wines low in acid; "dry" red or white wines with pronounced residual sugar; wines that taste more of oak than wine; or wines with high levels of alcohol  higher that 13.5%.   We prefer 13% and lower, but will consider wines of 14% and, on very, very rare occasions 14.5%, but only if they seem particularly well balanced, which is a sleight-of-hand performed by very few maestros." - - From The Spanish Artisan Wine & Spirits Group - Gerry Dawes Selections Mission Statement.

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Harold McGee on High Alcohol in Wines

Harold McGee at the book party at Per Se for Ferran Adrià's A Day at El Bulli.
Photo by Gerry Dawes ©2008.

"High-alcohol wines, those that exceed about 14 percent alcohol, are often described as “hot” and unbalanced. Alcohol’s irritating effects account for the heat. And flavor chemists have found that high alcohol levels accentuate a wine’s bitterness, reduce its apparent acidity and diminish the release of most aroma molecules. Alcohol particularly holds down fruity and floral aromas, so the aroma that’s left is mainly woody, herbaceous and vegetal

I couldn’t find any recent trials of wine dilution, but it’s been practiced since the days of ancient Greece, so I went ahead and tried it on a California zinfandel with 14.9 percent alcohol. I poured a partial glass of the wine and added about a quarter of its volume in water, to get it down to 12 percent.

A glass of the full-strength wine tasted hot, dense, jammy and a little sulfurous, while the diluted version was lighter all around but still full of flavor, tarter, more fruity than jammy, and less sulfurous. . ." -- Harold McGee, aka Curious Cook and author of On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, on High Alcohol in Wines in his article, To Enhance Flavor, Just Add Water in The New York Times (July 7, 2010).
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(Note:  These quotes from Harold McGee, who is a friend of mine, are in no way meant to construe or imply that Harold in any way endorses the wines or philosophy of The Spanish Artisan Wine & Spirits Group.  His conclusions on high alcohol in wine speak for themselves. It was about time that someone with a scientific background said what many people have been thinking for a long time.  High alcohol is an albatross around the neck of a fine wine, in fact I believe it keeps many wines from being truly great. -- Gerry Dawes, Gerry Dawes's Spain: An Insider's Guide to Spanish Food, Wine, Culture and Travel.)