With Andrew Hodson, Veritas Vineyard and Winery
Witnessing taste components in wine – Alcohol.
Just to do a brief recap – to witness the properties of a wine and here although I am featuring sparkling wine in the blog these principles apply to all wines from Asti Spumante to Zinfandel. Each time we taste we go through the same logical approach. We have covered the appearances of wine and how to adequately smell the wine and in our last few segments we have been talking about describing the tasting of wine again, just to emphasize in the same systematic way. The properties we consider when we taste wine come under the following categories. We’ve done Sweetness, acidity and tannins so this week we are going to consider how alcohol fits into the tasting protocol.
Remember last week I emphasized how each one of these components are in a constant interplay, each one affecting the other.
When we use the term alcohol in referring to wine, beer, or spirits we are talking about ethyl alcohol or ethanol.
‘Ethyl’ refers to two carbon groups, contrast that with methyl alcohol that only has one carbon group. Methanol is toxic, the term “blind drunk” is the result of drinking ethanol contaminated with methanol.
Ethanol is a psychoactive drug that can cause mood lift, euphoria, decreased anxiety, increased sociability, sedation and impairment of cognitive function.
Overall it causes a generalized depression of the central nervous system.
I am going to approach understanding of alcohol as if we were following its synthesis from the vineyard to the bottle and finally to the wine glass.
Ethanol is formed when yeasts convert carbohydrates -sugars with the release of carbon dioxide and heat a process that is called fermentation and is most commonly associated with the production of ethanol.
The vine leaves photosynthesize mainly glucose with a smaller amount of fructose as the primary sugars that are transported into the grape. In the vineyard as the fruit gets riper the greater is the amount of sugar and it follows that the higher the sugar the higher the potential alcohol concentration will be in the wine.
Hot climates like the Southern Rhone Valley and California produce high alcohol wines like Châteauneuf du Pape, Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon that are the limit of normal fermentation which is as high as 16% abv.
The key point here is that when the alcohol level gets above 16% high the yeasts die off. So no matter how much sugar is added the alcohol will stop the fermentation when it gets above 16%. In quest for ever higher alcoholic levels specialised yeasts that are able to tolerate ever higher levels of alcohol have been developed.
The opposite occursIt in cool climates with less sunshine the sugars are lower so there is less alcohol in wines like Chablis, Riesling or Pinot Grigio.
In Germany the whole classification of the wines is based on what is called the “must weight”
which is determined by the amount of sugar in the grape juice before fermentation.
Having created the wine the first step we take in our systematic approach to witnessing wine is to observe carefully what we can learn from the wines appearance.
You can actually get a good idea if a wine has a high alcohol concentration by simply looking carefully to assess whether you observe what are called the “tears” or “legs” of the wine.
The rule is that the more prominent the “legs” the higher is the alcohol.
Having looked we now smell and assuming the wine is not contaminated we take a deep breath and concentrate on what we are smelling as the aromas come straight through the nose – ortho- nasal and as the aromas come from the back of the palate the retro- nasal aromas.
Conventional wisdom has it that pure alcohol has no smell per se (of its own) it is a clear odorless liquid. However alcohol creates a sensation in the nose due to the evaporative property of alcohol. It is not really a smell it is more a sensory feeling in the nose. I think I can detect a high alcohol wine by “smelling” the feel of alcohol in the nose.
Just as pure alcohol has no smell there is no one who says it has a taste but you can “taste” it because of its physical characteristics it literally burns, a sensory phenomenon not a tasting phenomenon.”Hot”is a legitimate descriptor of a wine with high alcohol.
Alcohol in wine has an enormous influence as to how the wine is perceived. It literally affects the perception of every one of key component properties, including sugar, acid, tannins, flavor intensity and finish;.
One of the most beautiful examples of this was provided to me by Bruce Zoeckling, the erstwhile professor of Enology for the state of Virginia. It was for me one of those Ah Ha moments when you had to taste it to believe.
What Zoecklein did was to take a single varietal wine (Grenache) and adjust the concentration of alcohol from 10 – 15%. The wine was tasted at different alcohol concentrations. It was amazing to experience how important the correct concentration of alcohol was to the integrity of the wine. The analogy I like to use, is the one, when in the good old days we used to “tune” the radio; as we turned the dial all sorts of weird noises and buzzes were heard then all of a sudden you get a signal, loud and clear “This is the BBC world news.”
So it is with wine when you get the correct frequency i.e. concentration of alcohol, the signal comes through loud and clear.
Individually alcohol itself tends to blunt the expression or the perception of flavor components, and tannins it is not so much how alcohol affects each one of the individual components but how the components interact with themselves and with the alcohol.
Everyone is different when it comes to tolerating alcohol.
It is true that there is a gender difference in the way that men tolerate alcohol compared to women (apart from the relative differences in ratios of body fat) men have an enzyme in the stomach lining that women lack – the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase breaks down alcohol actually in the stomach and to some extent slows the rate of absorption.
Another factoid of interest particularly in relation to sparkling wine and alcohol is that there is evidence that blood alcohol levels (BAC) are influenced by the presence or not of carbon dioxide – the active ingredient in sparkling wine. The carbon dioxide in sparkling wine accelerates the absorption of alcohol leading to more rapid intoxication.
On that note time to summarize,
Alcohol has a major effect on the perception of all components in wine
Alcohol is a major central nervous system depressant
Sugar levels determine alcohol levels
You can see at least to some extent the alcohol level in a wine
There is a sweet spot at which the alcohol level harmonizes the wine.
Next week if alcohol is legs then we are going to discuss the next best thing the body of the wine
Keep tuned and stay connected,