Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

More booze isn't always a good thing

Quality of red wines suffer as alcohol levels soar to greater heights

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The other day I revisited the Lammershoek 2012 Syrah from South Africa (it got a four-star review from me a couple months back) and as I sat there, thoroughly enjoying it, I was trying to figure out what it was that made this particular Syrah so compelling.

Then it hit me -- or, rather, it didn't hit me. The Lammershoek has this beautiful subtlety that comes from the fact it clocks in at a mere 12 per cent alcohol by volume.

That's low for a red wine -- these days, your typical dry red wine will be in the neighbourhood of 13.5-14.5 per cent, with many from warmer climate, New World regions creeping to 15 per cent or higher.

While the difference between, say, 12 and 15 per cent may not seem big at first glance, one has 25 per cent alcohol than the other. That's significant.

Back when I started in the wine biz in the mid-'90s, it wasn't uncommon to see reds with 12.5 per cent alcohol. These days they're few and far between.

So why has alcohol crept up? There are a number of reasons. Most importantly, however, is that producers -- especially from the New World -- often leave grapes longer on vines, resulting in riper fruit that contains more sugar. The sugar is then converted to alcohol, and more sugar means more alcohol.

Many regions are also getting increasingly warmer thanks to our changing climate.

On the finish, a high-alcohol wine produces that warmer feeling down the back of your throat and into your chest -- great if you've got a cold and you're sipping on brandy, but not always so great if you're drinking wine.

Big alcohol can obstruct the fruit flavours of the wine. Whether it's a robust, ripe Syrah or a lighter, more delicate Pinot Noir, high alcohol often pummels the fruit (and your palate) into submission.

There's a Pinot Noir from Sonoma that shall remain nameless (it's not in our market) that I tried on three separate occasions over two years. Its distinct cherry cough syrup flavour was just as jarring every time thanks to an obtrusive 15 per cent alcohol level. All the typical subtleties of Pinot Noir had been annihilated.

When I was in Australia in 2011 I tasted plenty of incredible reds -- brambly, burly Shiraz, delicate Pinot Noir, austere Cabernet Sauvignon.

But one of the most memorable wines was a flagship wine from a fairly decent producer, which I tried over lunch with the winemaker. As I was tasting, I discreetly wrote "ripping alcohol," "super hot finish," "lacks balance," and "intense" in my notebook. I snuck a peek at the back label when the winemaker wasn't looking -- sure enough, it was listed at 16 per cent alcohol.

What's worse, Australian laws indicate that the official tolerance for variation on a wine label is 1.5 per cent. That means a wine labelled at 14.5 per cent alcohol is actually somewhere between 13 to 16 per cent alcohol. The wine I tasted was labeled as 16 per cent alcohol, meaning it could have been as high as 17.5 per cent alcohol. That's sherry territory -- yikes.

Some wines can pull off higher alcohol quite well -- many mid- to upper-level California Zinfandels, for example, or Amarone from Italy's Valpolicella region. Both push the 16 per cent limit at times, and many producers show great skill in retaining balance of flavours.

Next time you go wine shopping, try to find a red wine that's 12 per cent alcohol. If you find one (other than the Lammershoek Syrah, which is at Banville & Jones), email me.

Twitter: @bensigurdson


(Clare Valley, Australia -- around $17, private wine stores)

Bright ripe raspberry aromas jump out on this Clare Valley Shiraz, with brambly blackberry, anise and an underlying savoury note on the nose. It's a dry, full-bodied Shiraz, which manages to merge big blackberry and raspberry notes with cherry-skin, black-olive and meaty spice notes on the palate. The wine spends a year in oak barrels; alcohol is listed 14.5 per cent. 4 stars



(Victoria, Australia -- $19.99, Liquor Marts and beyond)

Another 14.5 per cent wine, the Billi Billi offers ripe cherry, raspberry, vanilla, and lacquer notes on the nose -- the latter two courtesy 12 months in oak. It's a full-bodied, juicy red, with chewy red-fruit flavours on the palate and some heat on the finish. 3-1/2 stars



(Winnipeg -- $ /650ml bottle, Liquor Marts)

This local seasonal German-style wheat beer has long been a favourite of mine, and this year's batch certainly doesn't disappoint. Fresh grains, lightly toasted malt, flowers and a hint of banana candy are quite expressive on the nose. It's a relatively dry wheat beer, with a banana oatmeal note on the palate that does well with the malt and wheat notes. There's far more complexity here than most wheat beers in our market. 4-1/2 stars

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 26, 2014 D14

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