Wine, Straight Up

A recent Guardian story on low-alcohol wine has a not-unfamiliar lead:

It was over dinner at Racine in London with some friends a few years ago that we first noticed. How had we got so smashed?

As wines have inexorably inched upward in alcohol, people everywhere have found themselves more sodden than they’d expected. A couple of years ago in the New York Times, writer Eric Asimov addressed the topic in “The Hard Stuff Now Includes Wine,” noting that it is “the rare bottle from California, red or white, that doesn’t reach 14 percent alcohol.” A bottle with 15 percent alcohol contains 25 percent more boozy kick than a 12 percenter. High-alcohol wine has its defenders, but as Asimov points out, a 15 percent wine gets you to whoopsy-daisy a whole lot faster.

That’s what happened to the diners in the Guardian, who’d been drinking a 15 percent South African red “in place of the gentler 12.5% of our usual claret. It had been like drinking on an empty stomach. It had slain us.” Consumers, not shockingly, have expressed a desire to be less slain, so supermarkets in England are now selling low-alcohol wines, including an Australian Shiraz that rings in at under 10 percent. That’s achieved by slashing the alcohol content in the winery. The UK’s Sainsbury’s chain is also marketing a low-alcohol brand that uses grapes grown in cooler sites (and picked with less sugar content, since sugar equals alcohol, of course).

All that said, winemakers have limited choices. Winemaking comes down to climate. Unless everyone starts artificially reducing alcohol content, wines may soon be bigger, stronger, and harder whether we like it or not.

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