]Wine contains alcohol — duh. But how much is appropriate for table wines that are intended to be consumed with food?
This debate has raged for about the past 15 years and there are many, notably in the United States, who believe that the percentage of alcohol is immaterial as long as the wine tastes OK.
As a result, we have seen alcohols creep up to 14.5 percent, 15 percent, and higher. Many wine reviewers prefer higher alcohol and reward them with higher scores. In fact, a few zinfandels that received high praise from some wine reviewers are in the 17 percent range.
Contrast this with alcohol levels for most red wines that before 1990 routinely were about 13.5 percent — and even that level was considered high compared with the average of hundreds of years in the past, when 12% was the norm.
In the late 1980s, I was having lunch with the late winemaker Pete Seghesio at his home. It was a warm summer afternoon, and on the table was a 1985 Seghesio Zinfandel.
"I just don't get some of the wines these days," he said. "Too alcoholic." He then poured some of his ice water into his glass of zin. "That's better," he said.
A year ago, I interviewed the respected Peter Mondavi, then 96, at his Charles Krug Winery. He poured us an expensive cabernet sauvignon and muttered something about its alcohol being "for the younger generation," adding that in his day "12% was just fine for me."
True, older Americans who grew up with wines of more modest alcohols may prefer what they were weaned on. But recent research and current trends suggest that the majority of wine drinkers are happiest with wines lower in alcohol.
For one thing, the fastest-selling wine in retail stores over the past 18 months has been Muscat-based white wines, most called Moscato. The majority have alcohols well under 12 percent alcohol.
Then there is research sponsored by German wine trade fair Prowein and released last week.
A U.S.-based analytical firm, Wine Intelligence, asked 1,000 regular wine drinkers in the United States, China, Germany and the United Kingdom about their drinking preferences.
The company said significant minorities said they preferred wines with less than 12 percent alcohol!
The trend toward lower alcohols among some wine companies is not only a taste issue, but a taxation issue as well. U.S. government taxation regulations require a payment of $1.57 for a gallon of any wine that is over 14 percent alcohol, but wines with less than 14 percent alcohol are taxed at a rate 50 cents per gallon less.
These so-called table wines constitute the majority of wines made in the world, though many are not considered "premium." But imagine the tax savings.
Say a large winery makes 1 million cases of a particular wine. This is equivalent to 2.38 million gallons, which works out to a savings of $1.2 million in taxes as long as the wine is under 14% alcohol.
As a result, many wine companies work diligently to make sure their alcohols are below the added-tax bracket. And, according to the research announced at Prowein in Germany, many people find that kind of wine most acceptable.
Wine of the Week: 2010 Tapena Garnacha, Tierra de Castilla ($12) — This delightful dark red wine has a faintly meaty aroma with dark cherries, cranberries and a silken aftertaste and works nicely with milder meat dishes. This Spanish wine is often discounted below $10.