Wine Components: Alcohol

This excursion into the world of wine components was started by a question from an A Million Cooks listener. Jim said that, while his friends seem to pick out aromas like strawberry or vanilla, the wine just smells like wine to him!

Today: Alcohol – without it, it’s just grape juice!

During wine making, yeast cells consume the sugar in the grape juice and convert it to alcohol, carbon-dioxide gas and heat – it’s called fermentation.  When the yeast runs out of sugar it dies, or goes dormant, the fermentation ends naturally and the wine is dry (not sweet).  The higher the sugar content of the grape juice, the higher the alcohol in the wine (assuming it’s dry).  There are numerous ways to make sweet wine and, in most cases, it’s done by preventing the yeast from using up all of the sugar.  This means there’s natural sugar left over – the wine tastes sweet and the alcohol is a bit lower.

Alcohol accounts for most of the “body” or heft of the wine, along with the grape extracts. Full-bodied wines are usually at least 11.5%. That’s most of the world’s reds and a lot of the world’s Chardonnays. Light-bodied wines are, generally, less than 11%.  If you’ve never tasted a wine below 11%, they can be oh, so delightful!  Less body doesn’t necessarily translate to less flavorful wine.


Detecting alcohol: Hopefully you don’t. The alcohol is just supposed to be there – it’s not supposed to draw attention to itself. Next time you take a sip of wine, notice the temperature in your mouth before and after you take that sip. The wine has a nice warming effect, doesn’t it? That’s the alcohol talking!

If it’s quite warm, or almost hot, it may not be balanced with the other components. If you taste the alcohol, or feel like a fire-breathing dragon, it’s definitely not balanced it’s too high. High alcohol isn’t a bad thing as long as it’s balanced with the other components – think Port – around 18-21% alcohol, warming and wonderful! On the other hand, a wine that’s intended to be full bodied, but doesn’t have enough alcohol feels thin and unsatisfying on your palate. It’s all about balance…



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