Even an Alcoholic Has Limits

(Originally published July 2005)

It's no secret that Hanes is rapidly becoming disenchanted with high alcohol wines. Any regular reader of The Hanes Wine Review will pick this up in the 36.2 average words s/he reads of each voluminous edition. While there is no doubt he still pounds back many of these high octane swills, it is reflected in the tasting note verbiage - and horrors of all horrors, yes, the numeric score - that they just are not making the positive impression they perhaps once did. But why? Has Hanes lost his insatiable lust for inebriation? Prithee, he says thee nay. It's more that he has finally figured out that he wants the “buzz” without the “burn”!

OK, so what is it about higher alcohol content that bothers Hanes? It's not the alcoholic content per se, it's the imbalance high alcohol can create among the wine's constituent elements as well as the burning sensations of heat in the nose and throat while all he wants is to peacefully soak in the scents and flavors. What does this mean? Lucy, you got some 'splaining to do…

Of course, we ALL know that alcohols are predominantly produced by yeasts during the fermentation process of the grape must into wine. That's why it doesn't say “Welch's” on the side of the bottle. Alcohol is a desired outcome of this fermentation process. How much alcohol is produced depends on a veritable plethora of factors. These include, but are not limited to, the natural inclination towards ripeness of any given grape type, the climatic factors influencing the vineyard site, the length of time the grapes are left to ripen on the vine (“hang time”) before picking, the yields of the vines in terms of bunches per vine or tonnage per acre, the vinification process of the freshly pressed grape juice, and whether or not the wine has been fortified. That's a lot of factors. Many dictated by the whims of nature but many firmly within the effective powers of the vineyard manager and the winemaker.

By volume wine is mostly water with alcohol the next biggest component. Ethanol is the main alcohol - it has no taste and almost zero flavor. Ethanol's primary functions are to create a sweet sensation in the mouth and add weight/body to wine due to its viscosity, which is greater than water. More importantly, alcohol delivers most of a wine's aromas and flavors. Hanes understands how higher alcohol can create a more full-bodied wine (the chemical compound glycerol also plays a role in a wine's sweetness and to a lesser extent viscosity but “they say” this has been traditionally overrated). However, the sweetness factor always weirds Hanes out as he is easily confused. When one thinks of dry table wines, sure, the higher in alcohol ones are generally sweeter. Think Californian Zinfandel, Australian Shiraz or a bunch of French Viognier wines. But then most German Rieslings are very low in alcohol and many are quite sweet, including of course the dessert wines. With the Germans is it simply an issue of robust ripeness (must weight) and not necessarily sweetness (sugar) per se? Plus, many German Rieslings also seem quite full-bodied without the high alcohol content. Hanes has decided to allow this mysterious point of confusion to persist as the future search for an answer will provide him with a reason to keep living. And give his smart aleck swell pals a chance to send him emails explaining it all.

Anyway, alcohol is supposed to be a factor which provides balance to a wine. If one were to remove the alcohol from a wine the resulting imbalance would not be pleasant. Conversely, the higher the alcohol the more the wine needs increased flavor concentrations and (non-alcohol produced) body to achieve and maintain balance. Yes, indeed, “balance” is the key word here. And it is becoming more and more apparent to Hanes that the concept of “balance” is highly subjective and a vast source of “cognitive dissonance.” Especially if one pays one's rent via the wine trade.

The basic scientific facts seem to be that at high concentrations ethanol produces a feeling of “heat” in the nose and mouth that can at times be displeasing if not outright painful. Human perception of alcohol depends on yet more damn factors. For example, the higher the serving temperature of the liquid, the more evident the alcohol. Conversely, the cooler the wine the less perceptible will be the alcohol. Always factor in serving temperature when thinking about the “burn” of the alcoholic heat in any given wine. This probably explains why a 14.5% alcohol white wine usually tastes less “hot” than a 14.5% red wine - they are served at very different temperatures, the cooler one partially masking the alcoholic burn. This is further borne out if the white wine in question gets warmer or if one chills down the red wine before consumption. Note that serving temperature has zero impact on the true alcoholic content of the wine, which remains constant.

First, let's talk about burning sensations in the nose as this is where most people will encounter the presence of excessive alcohol and any attendant imbalance. As counterpoint, let's look at hard alcohol beverages first. Brandies and other distillates are primarily supposed to be enjoyed for their aromas with only small sips being taken of the actual liquid. Why? Because there's too much alcohol in the liquid to just chug with abandon (not to say people don't do this, you know who you are). You get less burn in gently sniffing your single malt scotch than you do kicking back shots of it in a single gulp. By “burn” here Hanes means the basic sensation of heat but also a sense of having every single pore of one's nose being stripped and scrubbed into a raw state. This is not a “clean” or “fresh” sensation but something which makes your nose react by scrunching up or recoiling from the glass. One ends up almost shaking one's head side-to-side to try to dislodge the aromas and sensation. Is this the effect desired by the producers of high alcohol wines? Recoil? To be fair one has to venture that the answer is “no.” Unless they own a lot of shares in manufacturers of neck braces. But how do so many wines make it to the general market when they do produce these burning sensations? Good question.

It is very important to note that nose burn happens both nasally and retro-nasally, the latter occurring as persisting fumes in the mouth which hit one's olfactory sense through the “back door.” Swallowing and coating the mouth and throat with liquid creates more fumes and thus greater exposure to burn. Note also that higher alcohol content increases the type of volatility which drives evaporation into fumes and even more burn. About 75% of what normal humans consider to be taste is actually one's olfactory sense at work. This is paramount because retro-nasal sensing gets overlooked and creates a “disconnect” between many wine writers who spit and decrease retro-nasal sensing and end consumers who, err, pay for the right to swallow the damn wine. The latter people get the whole retro-nasal enchilada and a lot more potential burn than the wine reviewers who spit out the wine before it touches the back of the throat (even if they intentionally agitate the wine while it is still in the front of the mouth).

But Hanes why don't you just spit if you don't want the burn? He simply cares too much about relating the full experience of the wine to his readers, that's why! If aromas continue to be registered by the nose after you swallow, wafting up through the mouth into the nasal cavity, simply in the opposite direction than sniffing through the nose directly, then that is part of the complete experience and Hanes truly does seek to express the complete experience. If a taster spits s/he doesn't get this effect and loses out on extending the olfactory enjoyment and/or analysis of the wine. So, don't listen to all those people who spit and then say the wine's aromas are muted or dull - Hanes swallows which means at least 73 more descriptive words on a given wine's nose!

Alcoholic burn persists more in the mouth than the nose partially due to the fact that the sense of smell is, although the easiest to stimulate, the easiest to fade away or “fatigue.” This “sensory adaptation” makes scents fade quickly and makes the presence of alcohol fade as well. As with so much in life, you have to take the good with the bad. This is part of why many seasoned tasters (sounds better than “alkies”) take many repeated short violent sniffs of wine than one big whoosh in - they are trying to combat olfactory fatigue. But in the mouth it's kind of lame to try and replicate this via many repeated small sips. And it doesn't work. The burning sensations persist much more powerfully in the mouth, particularly due to the tactile viscosity which the higher level of alcohol brings. The liquid clings to your mouth pores and thus the burn continues. The only thing which really stops the burn is when one's mouth is either freed of the liquid's presence or rendered so numb it can't register the burn any longer.

OK, so it is fairly easy and straightforward to explain the factual nature of alcoholic burn in wine. But this does little to explain why there has been an increase in the quantity of wines possessing such burn or heat. Delving into the “why” is where Hanes is most likely to engender scurrilous invective from his wine industry brethren.

It is generally accepted that wines produced from grapes grown in warmer climates have the capacity to accumulate higher levels of sugar and hence higher levels of alcohol and become in turn bigger wines. As a result, the warmer the climate of the growing area, the more higher alcoholic content will be an issue for the grower and producer. Duh. As alluded to before, there are many techniques which may be employed to manage alcoholic content and strive for a balanced wine. Yet, as also alluded to before, many wine critics and such don't really get the wine's “Full Monty” effect and perhaps, just perhaps, this contributes to their growing affection for massively-scaled wines which are very ripe and also frightfully alcoholic. To be fair (for once), end customers themselves don't seem to be putting up much of a fight here either. They willingly accept - if not energetically seek out - high octane bruisers and look askance at more fully balanced wines. As a result of the feedback of the majority of the wine writing world and consumer behavior, wineries produce more and more big-bodied, fruit-driven, high alcohol wines. After all, we're all good capitalists, no? Who can blame the wineries entirely?

Luckily for the winemakers of the world there are more and more ways to attempt to achieve balance in the final wine while still going for maximal ripeness (and running the risk of out-of-control alcohol). To restore balance to a wine it may be de-alcoholized with a centrifuge or a process called reverse osmosis. Wines may be watered down, acidified or have tannins added back in. These are not “natural” processes and, as a result, may effect one's perception of balance in a wine. It really depends on how persnickety one is, how sensitive one is to a smooth, fluent sense of balance in a wine. Now, on the one hand, Hanes isn't a total reactionary purist, if winemakers want to practice the “dark arts” of winemaking and do things to the wine in the winery so that it comes out tasting OK and close to more natural expectations, whatever, dude. But it's only OK if that end result does in fact come out tasting naturally balanced. And this happens much less frequently than many with a financial interest in the wine industry are willing to admit.

Another example. Fans of single malt scotches don't like to add ice to the liquid as it dulls the aromas. However, they will add distilled water as this helps release aromas and reduce alcoholic burn. Imagine adding water to your glass of wine to achieve the same result. Sounds funny, no? If you wouldn't do this at home with your glass of wine then why is it OK for a winemaker to do this in the winery?

Or let's look at the world of cosmetics. There they consider perfumes to be stronger than colognes because the former is more concentrated and contains more alcohol to release the fragrance. You only use a tiny dab here and there and that's enough perfume. Colognes are more watered down because guys are clumsy oafs and like splashing sounds. And, if they wear cologne, probably gold chains and pinkie rings too. The concept of balance in a perfume or cologne is a sort of “category mistake” since so little is meant to be used at once. Both a perfume and a wine are intended to be rich in aromas but only the latter has to worry about balance. Too many winemakers these days think they are in the cosmetics business and seem to have forgotten that concentration is only one facet of a complete wine. But, hey, if Chanel No. 5 sells for like $260 for five ounces imagine what my Syrah can fetch for 750 milliliters!

The issue of alcoholic heat is most dealt with in young wines because most wines are consumed young. But it needs to be noted that many high octane wines of certain expensive price ranges are supposed to be able to improve and develop subtleties with aging. With any wine, regardless of alcoholic content, after the fruit and tannins fade the alcohol remains. With high alcohol wines there is a greater chance that the heat is only going to get worse if the concentration of the fruit flavors fade and no other desirable flavor comes out as a suitable replacement - if it's hot young chances are it's gonna be hot old. And you're paying extra for the honor of finding out.

Now, lest too many feathers get ruffled there are balanced wines out there with high alcohol content. That is, a 10.0% alcohol wine and a 16.0% alcohol wine can both be balanced but the truth is that the former is much more likely to be balanced because there are less variables to be dealt with and accounted for than with riper, more concentrated wines. Everyone in the biz mouths the platitude that hey, man, “it all happens in the vineyard” and not in the winery. But if this were true there wouldn't be all these hyper-concentrated wines that make your mouth feel like it's being jabbed with a red hot poker. If a balanced wine is really the goal of the grower and winemaker the trend should be to both tame the alcoholic content and make sure the other requisite elements of acidity, pH, tannins, etc. are where they should be. The quest for ripeness is a smokescreen if it is known that the end result is not going to be a balanced wine without it needing some serious intervention along the line. If someone wants to argue that, sure, it's 17.5% but it's balanced while Hanes's tongue feels like it's slathered in wasabi they are going to lose a great deal of credibility over time. If the vineyard location or the vintage's vagaries do not allow for producing a naturally balanced wine without alcoholic burn then that's your problem, not Hanes's. The courteous thing is to not make a wine without natural balance and slap a $50 price tag on it. Send the kids to state college, they weren't going to get into Harvard anyway.

There are over 20 vineyards in the Santa Rita Hills AVA, each offering their own distinctive properties and offerings. In many cases the fruit of these vineyards are bottled by the vineyard owners under their own labels. But a lot is sold to other producers and labeled with the vineyard designate on the label. Dunno, there's probably like 40 (if not more) wineries producing wines from the AVA. Hanes has his favorites, sure, but that's why you read every word of the review to find out which these are, right? In any event, given its relatively small size and keen focus on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, this is one area where it is truly fascinating to compare wines and see if Winery A's 2003 Pinot Noir from Vineyard X tastes differently from Winery B's 2003 Pinot Noir from the same Vineyard X. You can learn a lot about how “terroir” translates into glasses of wine and also how various winemakers “interpret” the same grapes.

You know, the real geeky stuff that gets the chubby, anti-social guy the blonde hottie at the end of the movie.