Have You Ever Had A 16 Percent ABV Wine That Was Really Balanced?

Vinted on September 25, 2012 binned in commentary

With all my talk recently about alcohol not being anywhere near as important factor in quality wine as overall balance, I asked myself a tough question in the wake of that talk, and I couldn’t come up with a good answer.

When was the last time you’ve had a wine that was over 16% alcohol that seemed balanced?

Personally, I drew a total blank.

There literally isn’t one dry, still wine (non-fortified… Ports for example are definitely not included in this mini-analysis) I can recall that clocked in above 16% abv that on the whole felt compellingly balanced to me.

Anyone? Buehler? Buehler???

Of course, part of the reason for this is likely due to the fact that I just don’t record abv when I review wines… but I might starting doing exactly that, if only for experimental and self-education purposes. And the number of 16%+ abv still wines out there probably isn’t all that large, the majority probably clocking in somewhere between 12% and 15% abv when you’re talking still, dry fine wines. But having said that…

While I’ve also had plenty of juice in the 15%+ range that were great – big wines, no doubt, but also damn good ones –  of the wines that I can recall that clocked in somewhere in 16%+ booziness range, none of them were great, balanced offerings. In fact, most of them were way off the mark when it comes to balance; boozy, raisined, overly pruney, and a chore to drink.

So I’m hereby amending my previous diatribe, adding that there may actually be logical limits to balance. And while I won’t ever go on record as saying that great, balanced still wines can’t be made in that abv range, I sure as hell think it makes the job of achieving greatness that much harder.

What about you? Have you had a dry wine over 16% abv that you thought was balanced? Shout ‘em out!






  • Adam Lee

    IMO, there is no doubt that at both ends of the alcohol spectrum it is harder to find well balanced dry wines. How many 7% alcohol dry wines have you had that tasted balanced? The numbers in the middle are where it is easiest to find balance and also where the majority of the world's wines live.

    BTW, not really sure how you would know if some of those 15% alcohol wines that tasted balanced were really 16% or not…..

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

    • 1WineDude

      Adam – thanks, totally agree on both points. Some of those “healthy alcohol” wines are total [email protected], though I've definitely had 8% Rieslings that were awesome – and while I wouldn't think twice about purchasing an 8% Riesling that was on the sweet side (not dessert), I always worry a little when the abv is 16 or higher. As for the label lying… I've no doubt about that happening but I also don't have a lab handy :). Cheers!

  • Matthew Reschke

    I've had a few central coast Zins that were up there in the 15-16% ballpark that were quite enjoyable. A couple that pop into my head off the bat would be more recent vintages of Opolo Mountain Zinfandel and Orin Swift Saldo Zinfandel. I will say all these I substantially prefer with at least 30min in the decanter, so they could be having a bit of the ABV edge taken off, but I wouldn't think so much that the numbers would be that drastically different make it a moot point.

    Matthew Reschke
    Cooper's Hawk Winery & Restaurant

    • 1WineDude

      Thanks, Matthew. I can think of some Paso wines that fell into that abv category, and were (in my view) balanced. But over 16… still nada!

  • talkavino

    While I'm usually trying to shy away from the 15%+ wines, I had a number of outstanding wines at that level of alcohol.

    Two examples:
    2007 Mara Pinot Noir RRV – 15.6% ABV – outstanding
    2000 Carlisle Zinfandel – 16.4% ABV – I gave this wine my highest score ever (here is a link to the post if you want to read: http://talk-a-vino.com/2012/02/22/valentines-day-….

    I also once read an article about "harmony points" for different wines and different alcohol levels (saying that a certain wine will feel the best at a specific alcohol level, such as 14.1, for instance) – but I can't find any links to that now : (

  • Christopher O'Gorman

    I tasted through some wines in Gigondas and CNdP a couple years ago from ripe vintages, 2006 and 2007. Many were between 15.5-16%, and a lot were perfectly balanced and accurately reflected the terroir of those vintages.

    • 1WineDude

      Thanks, Christopher. We're any *over* 16%? I'd be fascinated to know. Sounds like those were high(ish) but I'd agree, I can think of several that were mid-15s that were balanced wines. Cheers!

  • Beau

    I can't think of any at 16%, but then again I have begun to question the listed alcohols on a lot of the wine I drink. On 'bigger' wines, I almost always question the alcohol levels because I think a lot of producers deliberately fudge the numbers.

  • george kaplan

    No. Nor 15% either. I'm keeping a '49 cheval Blanc in the freezer for just the right moment, though.

    • 1WineDude

      George – so, can you call me when that thaws??? ;-)

  • Brian Cheeseborough

    I dont think you need to post every ABV, but perhaps those over, say 15%

    • 1WineDude

      Brian – why that cut-off, though? Do you consider over 15 to be high (personally, I do but just curious where you stand on that).

  • Chuck Flanders

    RustRidge 2005 Reserve and 2006 Estate Zinfandels each clocks in at 16.5% (rumor has it they might even clear 17%) and are both well balanced. The 2006 was a 4-Star Gold Medal winner at the Orange County Wine Competition.

    How do they achieve balance? By turning the fruit concentration, acidity and tannin 'up to 11' in order to match the alcohol. In taste tests with 10 Northern California sommeliers, only 1 pegged it at more than 15%.

    • 1WineDude

      Thanks, Chuck.

  • passionatefoodie

    First, why are you excluding fortified wines from your analysis?

    Two, why is balance such a desired trait? I know many people talk about it, and desire it, but who says a wine must be balanced to be good? Everyone seems to assume it is a top value, but who determined it should be so valuable? Historically, it was not always that way. For example, people used to drink overly sweet wines, including Champagnes, which I doubt anyone would claim were balanced.

    Three, what is wrong with tasting the alcohol in a wine? In spirits, it is not considered a big problem. You expect to taste the alcohol in bourbon and Scotch.

    (Yep, I had too much time to think)

    • 1WineDude

      Hi Richard – to tackle those questions: 1) because I've had wines balanced that were fortified, and they're a slightly different animal for me, 2) because for me the greatest wines I've ever had were balanced, 3) nothing, I think alcohol is a flavor aspect, actually. Cheers!

      • passionatefoodie

        1) Well, if a fortified wine can be balanced, then why can't a nonfortified one be so as well? Why do you see them as such different animals?

        2) So balance is merely a personal matter for you, without a historical or authoritative foundation?

        • 1WineDude

          Richard – not saying they can't just that they haven't been to me yet. The authoritative part is in the eye of the reader I suppose.

  • Randy

    No. I haven't.

    • 1WineDude

      Thanks, Randy. I feel as though we're alone together, so to speak…

  • Sam

    No – but if you add a couple of ice cubes…

    • 1WineDude

      Sam – brilliant!!

    • @fatcork

      Ha ha… I agree : )

  • Kurt Niznik

    I encourage you to open your own account at a wine analysis lab such as ETS Labs in St. Helena. You can mail in your own samples from the wines you try and get chemistry numbers on them. An alcohol measurement will only cost about $25, so doing it once in a while won't cost you too much and will be very educational.
    Yes, absolutely, wineries will get accurate measurements of their alcohols and then print numbers on the bottle that are just within the legal margin of error so as to not scare people away with higher alcohol numbers.
    Also, yes, wines can be 'balanced' at very high alcohols just as they can be horribly unbalanced at lower alcohols. The balanced higher alchohol wines will always have a 'big' feel however and you will certainly notice the effects if you drink them. In side-by-side comparisons high alcohol wines that are otherwise balanced will almost always come across as bigger, fruitier, sweeter.
    After working in the industry for many years and observing how difficult and competitive wine sales are I am convinced that if enough people really wanted low alcohol wines we would be making them. Instead I think many people like the idea of lower alcohol wines but inevitably end up drinking high alcohol wines because, well, we like alcohol! It makes wine taste good.

    • 1WineDude

      Thanks, Kurt. The discussion is actually about balance, but what I'm trying to genuinely understand is whether or not those following it have had any > 16%abv wines that they considers balanced wines. Simply because I've not encountered one yet (to your point, that I know of based on the printed abv :).

      • Kurt Niznik

        I guess what I was genuinely trying to say :) was that I know for a fact there are California red wines you have reviewed very favorably that have a label alcohol above 15% and are actually above 16%. I know because I've tasted some the same wines and sent them in for analysis at ETS after the tasting to see what the chemistry was (as a winemaker I'm curious about this stuff).
        If you found those wines favorably balanced (I assume so since the ratings were fairly "kick-ass") then you have certainly tasted 16+ wines that you found balanced.
        To answer your original question, yes, I have had many >16% red wines (no whites) that I found balanced. Maybe a little over-the-top big, maybe too scorchingly hot if I tried to pair it with hot soup, but balanced. As long as the serving temp was cool and the food was not piping hot :).
        My questions: should CA style, big alcohol reds be considered "cocktail wines" instead of "dinner wines" as part of the definition of the style and should we all just be cool with that? Or is there a duty for all wines to have their primary role at the dinner table, in which case the high alcohol is a flaw, balanced or not?

        • 1WineDude

          Kurt – thanks! I suppose I'd have better stated that it was “knowingly” had 16%+ abv? :). Seriously, I'd love to know in private correspondence which wines those were, and it really helps to definitively answer the question for me on whether or not there's a logical cut off on the abv (sounds like a No) when it comes to balance. Of course, it leaves plenty of fodder for a discussion in why producers are not labeling truthfully…!

          • Kurt Niznik

            My agenda is not to 'out' people for their alcohol levels and labeling decisions, so I will not name names here or privately. I understand all too well the market pressures on producers and their desire to avoid negative criticism.
            I will openly state that my agenda with these comments is to get wine critics such as yourself to measure things such as alcohol, acidity, residual sugar, etc. on their own and from their observations make informed comments on those things should they choose to do so. I believe that once this is done, the informed critic will largely dispense with discussing these terms (because they will realize that deft [or inept] winemaking trumps all) and perhaps the wineries will stop labeling untruthfully but within legal limits (because more people will accept that the numbers don't matter all that much as a predictor of balance and quality and be able to use the information with confidence in its accuracy). Jon Bonne at the SF Chronicle is doing this to some degree and I applaud the effort.
            As for a discussion of why producers are not labelling truthfully, I think it is quite simple; public perception of high alcohol numbers on labels as negative drives producers to keep the label number as low as they can get away with while at the same time public demand for the taste of high-alcohol wines keeps alcohols in wine high Also, to anyone who has tasted wines with full knowledge of their chemistry, it is patently obvious that in a blind, side-by-side tasting comparison the higher alcohol wines will show as more fruity, aromatic, intense, concetrated and 'big' vs. their low-alcohol counterparts, all else being equal. In a competitive market where the opinions of wine critics (who often taste wines in blind, side-by-side comparisons) can often make or break the success of a wine why would producers not want this advantage?
            If the wine-drinking public is often talking low alcohol but still drinking high, is it really any surprise that wine labels do the same thing?

            • 1WineDude

              Kurt – Understood about not outing anyone, but if you want to discuss privately with a promise that I will not disclose our discourse, by all means contact me because it would be great just for my own personal wine tasting (and appreciation!) development. The trend of the abv on the labels isn't a surprise, as you point out; I'd add only that the tax structure around abv is undoubtedly another factor in “mistakes” being made when reporting abv for label approvals. I can tell you without giving specific names that quite a few winemakers have told me (even joking about it) that the round down on the abv numbers because they can; they are unlikely to get caught. Cheers!

              • Adam Lee

                I talk with a lot of folks, and I truly do not know of anyone who rounds down below the 14% level even though the wine is above it to avoid taxes. Everyone simply feels the risk is too great. Likewise, all of the studies I have seen (from Bonne', Wine & Spirits, etc) simply don't show that such a thing is happening. — Personally, I have found it (in my own tests) on import stickers….but that's about it.

                That being said, there are real reasons not to change the alcohol (as long as it is within the legal boundaries) from vintage to vintage…..and that is simply that other states require registration if the alcohol level is changed (and/or if a new COLA is acquired). And that costs money. For exactly that reason, many of our 2011 Pinots (a very cool year) are below the alcohol levels on the labels, because we don't want to change it and pay the money to the government. In other warmer vintages, the other direction has been true.

                Everyone seems to act as if there is some huge conspiracy amongst wineries to deceive people…..when it simply doesn't exist.

                Adam Lee
                Siduri Wines

              • 1WineDude

                Adam – I don't see a conspiracy, I see people making business decisions for the most part. I've had winemakers tell me half-jokingly things like “well, maybe another piece of paper was covering up the decimal places when I reported the abv…” Now, that doesn't mean it's the right thing to do, but I am talking about people who make tiny amounts of wine here, so to your point in terms of numbers this is not a conspiracy, it's very small beer.

  • Adam Lee


    So, if the question is simply…have you ever had a 16% alcohol wine that was balanced, and you say you haven't….we'd need to know how many 16% alcohol wines you've had that weren't balanced. Based on label numbers (since that's all you've got to go on) — how many do you have in your notes that weren't balanced? Did you taste them blind or did you know the label number first?

    I personally have had a few CdP wines that were over 16% (but not labeled as such) that were balanced, at least at the time.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

    • 1WineDude

      Adam – great questions but would take a lot of research on my part to pull that detail out. Too much, actually, since I do not have a detailed DB with all of that. :-)

  • charmion

    Another aspect: two people, one bottle, 45 minutes. Empty, or still half full and you are too weary to take another sip? The test of time is overlooked too often. An empty bottle means obviously you liked it for more than the first few sips.

  • 1WineDude

    Charmion – very true; of course, if the abv is high that empty bottle might really hurt the next day…

  • Renee

    Callaghan Vineyard in Soniota Arizona, makes some remarkable balance heavy hitter reds.

    • 1WineDude

      Thanks, Renee!

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