What The Recent Debates Over Low/High Alcohol Tell Us About The Future Of Fine Wine Buying

Vinted on September 5, 2012 binned in commentary


That’s the short version.

Here’s the slightly longer version:

Seriously, the debate (10 million plus search results, and counting!) over the perceived consumer trend towards lower alcohol wines (I’ve yet to see any convincing, hard data supporting this claim, by the way, in terms of any significant percentage shift of sales towards lower abv wines specifically because they’re lower abv wines) tells us precisely bupkis about the future of fine wine purchases.

We live in the golden age of consumer choice when it comes to fine wine sales, with more wine available of higher quality than at probably any other time in human history. If there’s a shift in U.S. wine consumer preferences, let’s hope the continuing democratization of that tastemaker opinion leads it towards favoring balanced wines, wines that taste great at 16% abv or 8% abv. (I’ve had wines that do, at both abv points, by the way).

There’s certainly research on public opinion seemingly favoring low alcohol wines, yes, and for sure there’s a shift in tastemaker opinion towards lower abv wines (to the point where some consider it “a mistake that is not recognized by most wine critics”), all of which eventually will probably sway a small percentage of the market (the tiney percentage that follows these things) towards buying wines with more restrained alcohol levels. But high abv wines – just like low ones – are not going away anytime soon. Debating whether or not one is superior to the other is a waste of time.

I’d rather spend that time drinking a balanced wine, despite the fact that even that pursuit is under attack already. Or several of them, actually, all finding their vinous fulcrum points at various places along the continuum of fruitiness, raciness, booze, grip, and what-have-you. Because like porn, we know balance when we encounter it, and we know when it’s poor, decent, or extraordinary attempt (okay, so the porn comparison doesn’t quite go the whole distance here…). No two wines are going to achieve that true balance in quite the same way, and it’s in the encountering of those differences where we’ll find some of the most potent spells in all of the slightly-mad but thoroughly-magical bottled world we call fine wine.






  • gabe

    love it!

    low or high alcohol are a direct result of climate. the idea that a winemaker should control the alcohol numbers of a wine runs contrary to the "hands off" winemaking approach that most low-alcohol lovers say they appreciate.

    i think the acidity levels in a wine tell us more about it's "balance" than the alcohol levels. but those vary depending on varietal, climate, and vintage. ultimately, each wine must be judged on its own merit.

    • 1WineDude

      Thanks, gabe – I'd add that abv also has to do with other factors, though generally speaking it's grape choice and ripeness I suppose. But for me, the important thing is that there's PLENTY of room for diversity here, and if one person digs higher abv wines, one digs lower, and other like me dig them both… well, hell, we can accommodate them all, can't we? :)

      • gabe

        i guess you're right, there are a lot of ways to manipulate a wine. but i stand by my statement that acidity has a lot more to do with balance than alcohol. nothing drives me crazier than a pinot noir with a pH around 4.0 that gets a high score, because it tastes rich and decadent when young, but it will fall apart in a few years. i'm thinking of a specific winery, but i will bite my tongue

        • 1WineDude

          gabe – understood! I'm inclined to agree about the acidity part, actually.

          • gabe

            cool. i actually re-read your post, i agree that everyone has their own palate, and i could even tone down some of my rhetoric about low-acid wines being inferior. but all of this talk about balance and alcohol…i think it hits the tree but misses the target.

            i think a lot of wines are indeed out of balance, i just don't think alcohol is the right number to be looking at. i think a great wine is a balance of rich fruit and crisp acid. if you're offering tons of fruit without any acidity, then that makes a wine out-of-balance, regardless of the alcohol content.

            all that said, my favorite part of your post is the very true and very real statement that everyone has their own palate, and nobody is wrong to like the wines they like. not every wine has to be in perfect balance, and i have enjoyed wines that are slanted in either direction. i love high acid chennin blanc or riesling. and i love gooey fruity zinfandel with very little acidty. but i recognize those wines are not really balanced.

            while everyone has a right to their own palate, i just wish this talk about balance went beyond the talk of alcohol. because i agree with you about one other thing…i don't give a crap how much alcohol a wine has in it.

            • 1WineDude

              Gabe – good points. I've certainly had wines that were so high in acid that they tasted out of balance even with food!

              • gabe

                i think one thing we did agree about is that acid is more important to "balance" than alcohol

              • 1WineDude

                gabe – everything works in concert for me, so I'm not saying one is more important than another, though I will say this: I sure as sh*t will drink a more acidic wine vs. a flabby one, and all wine has booze in it, but not all wine has the right amount of acid (and great wines for sure have ecent acidity, no question).

  • Michael

    I have to sort of wonder about the quality of the study cited. I've got to think many consumers when asked would be inclined to say I want lower alcohol wine because honestly, who is going to say they want their wine to have the most alcohol possible. It's the sort of question that seems like it should have a right answer, and unless the study had an all of the above response, you have to pick one.
    I actually wonder if the people who responded even really know how much alcohol is in the wines they like to drink. I mean really — 5.5 -8.0% — I can't say I recall having a wine with 5.5% abv. That would be some seriously sweet juice.
    I'd like to ask these same consumers what their favorite wine is and see if there is a correlation between what they say they prefer for abv and what they actually like to drink. (Another article on the study I saw said the wine drinkers in China prefer abv between 8 and 10% but also prefer red wine. Again, which red wine are they drinking with abv of 8%?)
    I almost never look at abv (well, except for Riesling), except if while I am tasting the wine it tastes hot (or sometimes, again mostly with Riesling, if it tastes sweet). And, as I'm sure you will not be surprised to hear, there are 12% abv wines that are hot and 14% abv wines that are not.
    Super long way of saying: I'm with you, bro.

    • 1WineDude

      Michael- My understanding (I've got to find the exact study and haven't had time yet today to track it down) is that there is a mismatch between what people are saying they want in terms of “lower” abv wines, and their purchasing habits. Direct link to that study notwithstanding, I wouldn't have a hard time believing that, specifically because some of those higher abv wines can indeed be balanced! Cheers!

  • @QuitWINEing

    As woman find out that lower alcohol wines equate to less calories, I wonder if that will create a slight bump in sales of lower alcohol wines on their part….that is until they find out that many of these lower alcohol wines often have lots of sugar…and that adds up too!

    I agree with Michael, I've had the alcohol spike on wines that are 12% and more recently, a wine that came in at 15% come across totally balanced. Off the subject, I've also had wines that are horribly high in acid, but when paired with the right foods, it was excellent!

    Can't say that I think alcohol level is really going to change anything….people will probably continue to buy wine based on taste preference and not alcohol level.


    • 1WineDude

      @QuitWINEing – I hope that people *do* continue to buy that way. :)

    • gabe

      i agree that wines with high acidity are great with food (in case you didn't notice, i was ranting about acidity and balance to joe on this very thread). i think that's a flaw with wine scores…a wine with low acidity might taste great on its own, but is nearly impossible to pair with food.
      its funny, all this talk about alcohol and balance – nobody would fault a high-acid, low alcohol champagne for being "out of balance". because it tastes so awesome, nobody cares!

  • @RadGrapes

    To me high alcohol or low alcohol may be the wrong question to begin with. A balanced wine, with good aromatics, body, structure, fruit and good acidity will usually appear balanced and enjoyable on the palate. A balanced wine is balanced, a complete wine, whether at 10% alcohol like a Riesling or 15.5% like a good Zinfandel.

    • 1WineDude

      @RadGrapes – Complete is a great way of putting it!

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