January 25, 2017
What’s your style?
HOW ALCOHOL CONTENT DETERMINES A WINE’S STYLE
Let’s face it, we all judge a wine by its label. Often we’re captivated by the clever name, the cool image or the fancy typeface on the label. The problem is these things tell us little about what we can expect out of the wine.
Sure, you can check where it’s from, the kind of grape used or how long it was aged. But even this can be hit and miss when looking to try something for the first time. If only there was a simple way to predict a wine’s body and style.
You may be surprised to learn that alcohol content can be your best guide to determining whether or not you will enjoy a particular wine.
The reason is that alcohol content is directly related to sugar content and plays a major role in mouthfeel and body of a wine. Natural sugars in grapes are converted into alcohol in the winemaking process. This means the riper a grape is, the more sugar it contains – and the higher the potential for alcohol content. Sweetness in wine can come from leaving some of the sugar unfermented. This is residual sugar. Some wines have “sweet” flavours identifiable with fruit flavours but do not have residual sugar and are therefore not technically sweet but rather “sweet” in flavour.
Looking at the alcohol content can give us clues into the residual sugar content – and may tell us a little more about the viscosity or thickness of the wine – offering clues about the body or texture. Follow these general guidelines to help select the right wine for you:
Low alcohol means significant residual sugar levels. These wines are very sweet and may not be for everyone. Fairly full bodied, thicker wine. Examples include Moscato and sweeter-style Rieslings.
Considered off-dry wines. Medium to full bodied. Typically are sweet at first with a dry finish. Sweetness can be felt at the tip of the tongue. Examples include Vouvray from France (Chenin Blanc). Rieslings with this content will be slightly lighter in body and very clean. Blended whites and other varietals at this content level are likely off-dry. There are exceptions. Semillon from Australia at 11% is a lean and dry wine. Vinho Verde from Portugal at 10.5% or 11% will be a light crisp wine. Both are made with relatively unripe grapes and are not sweet.
Ideal category for those who like, light, crisp and fresh wine styles. Almost always a bone-dry, crisp, light and lean wine style. More often come from cool climates using grapes that are “just ripe enough”. Examples include dry Rieslings, most Pinot Grigios (if your Grigio is lower in content it does have some residual sugar). Sauvignon Blanc will almost always be in the 12-12.5% range.
13% and Higher Alcohol
Not a sweet wine style. All the sugar has essentially been converted to alcohol. Made from very ripe grapes. These wines generally have “sweet” flavours (more fruit notes). The higher the alcohol gets (approaching 15%) the fuller the body and the more flavourful. Examples include Chardonnay (ranging from the low end to the highest), Viognier, Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer.
R E D W I N E S
Rare to find red wines in this category. The lower the alcohol the sweeter the wine due to residual sugar. These wines have a full, viscous mouthfeel and heavy sweetness. A fun example would be Roscato (a good stepping stone for red wine novices).
As with the whites this category tends to be the driest of the reds. Not the place to start for a first time red drinker. More often than not these come from cool climates using less-ripe grapes. They can be fairly lean, with a tight mouthfeel and firm tannins. Examples include Burgundy, Beaujolais and some Bordeaux wines.
13% and Higher Alcohol
Most red wine falls into this category. As the alcohol level goes up so should the body and ultimately the intensity of flavours. If you like medium to almost full body wine, choose your favourite grape variety at closer to 13%. If you crave thicker wines with deep intensity choose higher alcohol content wines. Wines sitting at 16% (many Australians) are big in body and boisterous with a thunderous mouthfeel.