High Alcohol Content: My Two Cents

By American Wine Appassionata September 02, 2016

High Alcohol Content: My Two Cents

During my last business trip to NYC I had a dinner meeting at the famed Bull and Bear restaurant at the Waldorf Astoria. I witnessed an interesting conversation between the bartender and a patron at the bar.

I arrived early to my meeting, while waiting; I decided to have my usual martini, Belvedere, slightly dirty, slightly dry with 3 pimento stuffed olives. I know what you are thinking, is this a scene from a James Bond movie? Not at all, this is exactly how I always ordered my martini; it is a matter of preference in taste.

Ironically, a gentleman and his date take a seat at the bar right next to me.  As the bartender places my Martini atop an underline, I hear the gentleman asking him if he has any California Cabernet Sauvignon with low alcohol content, following up with a comment…if there is such a thing? As the conversation continued back and forth, the gentleman tried a few different California wines and finally decided on one that he thought it tastes great and well balanced but asked about the alcoholic content. The bartender brought the bottle over while reading the label and replying 14.30%.  The gentleman quickly responds, I knew it, this way too high in alcohol for me.

I must say that, up to this point I was trying my hardest not to engage myself in such conversation, reluctantly. Unfortunately, I did not have the opportunity to do so as my guests had arrived and they wanted to go directly to our table since there was hardly a seat available at the bar.

On my flight back home, I decided to write this blog regarding alcohol content.

The first thing that came to my mind is, when I order my martini, do I ask about the alcohol content in my vodka? And if it is too high, do I change the type of vodka?

The answer is, certainly not, I do not think most people order their favorite alcoholic drink based on alcohol content but rather based on enjoyment and taste preference.

This goes for Whiskey, Bourbon, Vodka, Tequila …. Etc.!

If a wine is balanced, the alcohol percentage should be an irrelevant factor in determining if a wine is well made, tastes good or not.

The only thing the alcohol percentage in a wine tells us is that the sugar content of the grapes at harvest was high, since there is a direct correlation between alcohol and sugar.


High Brix (is the sugar content of wine grape) = High alcoholic contents %

Low Brix (is the sugar content of wine grape) = Low alcoholic contents %


California has been blessed with great soil, micro climates and most of all sunny days and cooler nights.

Winemakers want to make the best wines that they can from the crop that they harvest each year.

To reach such an achievement, there are so many factors that play a fundamental roll to accomplish such a complicated task.

Sugar is only one factor, Tannic acid is another, the ultimate goal for a winemaker to receive a greenlight to go ahead and harvest is at that optimum point when the tannins and sugar reach the point of maturity together. Sometimes the grapes are at the perfect sugar content to produce a low alcohol wine but if the tannins are not matured yet, then if harvested, then you’ll end up with a low alcohol percentage wine but immature harsh tannins, wines that no matter how long you age them the tannin will not evolve.

When you start with tannins that did not reach maturity on the vines you’ll never be able to bring them to maturity no matter how long you age the wine for.

It is a decision that California winemaker struggle to make every harvest season.  California sun is abundant, which allows the grape berries to produce sugar at much faster rate that tannins’ ability to reach maturity.

Why does California have to immolate European wine maker to produce low alcohol wines but with astringent tannins?

California has a complete different terroir than France, Italy, Spain and the rest of Europe. If French winemakers had the same weather conditions, they would have produced the same higher alcohol content wines.

So stop comparing California wines to French, Italian, Spanish etc. Enjoy them for what they are.

California is not trying to make French or Italian wines; they are trying to make the best California wines they can.


The Wine Aficionado

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