Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Feel the heat

The higher the alcohol level, the hotter the finish of a wine

  • Print

Wine bottles typically have a lot of interesting things to say on the labels. On the front you usually get the name of the winery, information about the grape(s) or region, and the vintage. On the back label is usually some sort of story about the wine and/or serving/aging suggestions.

Hidden among all this stimuli -- sometimes on the front label, other times on the back -- is one little detail that can tell you a lot about what to expect from a wine, but that most typical consumers overlook.

It's just a number, but the alcohol content by volume of a wine can help determine what kind of experience you're in for.

Generally speaking, the alcohol content on most white wines is somewhere between 11 and 13 per cent by volume, while with red wines it's in the 12 to 14 per cent by volume range. Some whites like German Riesling may tend to be lower than 11 per cent, and some heavier reds will creep higher than 14 per cent.

Wine, of course, is fermented grape juice -- the sugar is converted to alcohol, with delicious results.

Stopping the fermentation process earlier leaves more residual sugar in a wine, meaning it will taste sweeter and the alcohol will be lower. This is most evident in wines like German Riesling or Moscato, where alcohol levels are typically between seven and 11 per cent.

With higher alcohol levels in red wines, it's sometimes a winemaking decision in a hot vintage to seek bigger fruit extraction, leaving the grapes on the vines to ripen longer. Higher sugar in grapes means to make a dry red wine, there needs to be a longer fermentation process, which often means higher alcohol content.

Alcohol is felt most vividly on the finish (or aftertaste) of a wine. Think about sipping a scotch whisky and the burn in your chest that you feel. That, along with the lingering flavours on your palate, essentially comprise the finish of a wine -- and I've had high-alcohol reds that have produced a burning sensation similar to that of a single malt.

Paso Robles in California and Australia's Barossa Valley are a couple of the world's warmer New World winemaking regions where 14-plus per cent alcohol in a red wine isn't uncommon. Chilean and Argentine reds often flirt with the extremes as well. Scorching temperatures and late-ripening grapes like Zinfandel, Syrah, Malbec and Carmenère often lead to dense reds clocking in upwards of 15 per cent alcohol.

I've been in the wine industry for over 15 years and have watched alcohol levels in reds from many regions creep from 12 to 13 to 14 per cent alcohol and higher. Highly extracted, hot, aggressive reds were for a time quite in style, and they typically scored well with some of the world's top critics.

Like many wine trends, this one is starting to recede, and more winemakers are trying to rein in higher alcohol in favour of wines with balance and elegance. But if temperatures in wine-producing regions continue to rise, we may find winemakers continuing to struggle with keeping higher alcohol levels in check.

HOLLICK 2010 CABERNET SAUVIGNON (Coonawarra, Australia -- $28.39, Liquor Marts and beyond)

Blackberry, blueberry and vanilla aromas are pretty typical of this region's Cabernet Sauvignon, although there's a hint of heat from the 14.5 per cent alcohol lingering on the nose here as well. It's a round, soft, full-bodied Cab with loads of blue and black fruit flavours -- again, typical Coonawarra -- that brings a bit of a burn on the finish. A savoury/meaty, flavourful dish would rein in the alcohol on this right now, or put this away for a few years and hope things mellow out. 88/100


BODEGAS BERONIA 2006 RESERVA (Rioja, Spain -- $21.99, Liquor Marts and beyond)

A blend of Tempranillo, Graciano and Mazuelo grapes, this wine was aged in oak for 18 months before release, in keeping with Reserva Rioja labelling regulations. Cherry, raspberry, earth, white pepper and spice show beautifully on the nose here. With age, this wine has become medium-plus-bodied and complex, with red berry, licorice and spice flavours, light acidity and tannin and a medium, balanced finish. Fourteen per cent alcohol. 91/100


BODEGAS CARCHELO 2009 ALTICO SYRAH (Jumilla, Spain -- $19, The Winehouse)

This sleekly packaged Spanish Syrah offers chocolate-covered cherry and liqueur notes -- think Black Forest cake -- as well as raisin and spice on the nose. It's a dense, full-bodied red, with chewy dark berry, cherry, chocolate and raisin flavours, and some remarkable earth and spice notes as well. It brings great viscosity, light tannins and a lovely licorice/anise note on the finish. Alcohol is 14 per cent, but by no means obtrusive. 90/100 twitter: @bensigurdson

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 8, 2012 E4

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes


  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.


Make text: Larger | Smaller


It's 4:20 in Winnipeg

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • A monarch butterfly looks for nectar in Mexican sunflowers at Winnipeg's Assiniboine Park Monday afternoon-Monarch butterflys start their annual migration usually in late August with the first sign of frost- Standup photo– August 22, 2011   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)
  • MIKE APORIUS/WINNIPEG FREE PRESS BUSINESS - cow on farm owned by cattle farmer Lloyd Buchanan near Argyle Wednesday afternoon -see Larry Kusch's story  January 04/2006

View More Gallery Photos


Do you think the Jets will win Game 4 on Wednesday?

View Results

View Related Story

Ads by Google