Wine Time: Playing the ‘alcohol game”

October 15, 2013 

Whenever we share a bottle of wine, we play what we call “the alcohol game.”

We try to guess the alcohol level of the wine as printed on the label. We give ourselves 3/10 of a percent of the alcohol level as an error factor. And we’re actually getting to be reasonably good at this game.

While not really tricks, there are a few clues that can help you guess.

Where is the wine from? In recent years, there has been a trend in New World wines to use very ripe fruit, which has high sugar levels. This results in higher alcohol content. Old World, European wines are more traditional and usually feature lower alcohol contents.

Moreover, certain areas, such as the California Sierra Foothills, have growing conditions that are conducive to yield fruit with high sugar content — whereas conditions in Germany, and other northern climates, produce fruit better suited for lower alcohol wines.

What’s the varietal? Grapes, just like people, come in a wide variety of personalities with individual idiosyncrasies.

The nose of the wine can also be revealing. When you swirl it and take a big sniff, what do you smell? Sometimes, you can actually smell the alcohol in the nose along with the fruit aromas and other nuances.

How’s it hanging? One of the best indicators of alcohol content is how the wine clings to the side of the glass when you swirl it. If you see a tall, intricate, wavy pattern, that’s a sign of high alcohol content.

And how does it taste? Sometimes, you can taste the alcohol in the wine, although if it’s properly balanced, that won’t be the case. Wines that are out of balance with perceptible alcohol taste are referred to as “hot.”

Above, we made reference to the alcohol level “as printed on the label.” That’s because wine makers worldwide play “alcohol games” of their own.

Essentially, the alcohol level shown on the label has to be within one-half percentage point of what’s in the bottle. Different barrels of the same wine can vary slightly at bottling.

Some countries require imported wines to show the alcohol level rounded to the nearest half percent. Rather than print different labels for each export country, you’ll routinely see imported wines at 13 percent, 13.5 percent, 14 percent and so on.

And the most important reason for the label to be slightly off is the tax rate. Producers have to pay higher taxes on wine when the alcohol percentage exceeds 14 percent.

We got this easy recipe from our friends at Handley Cellars in Mendocino, California.

Stuffed Mushrooms

8 large mushrooms

2 links sweet Italian sausage

1 Tbs. butter

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 Tbs. red wine

1 cup sour cream

Wash and dry the mushrooms and remove the stems. Chop the stems. Melt the butter in a sauté pan, then add the garlic, sausage, and stems.

Sauté 5 minutes. Remove from heat, add the red wine and stir.

Place the mushroom caps in a shallow baking pan and fill them with the sausage mixture and a dollop of sour cream. Bake at 300 degrees in a preheated oven for 30 minutes. Add salt, pepper, and paprika to taste.

Wine Recommendations

Recommended: Contina di Casteggio – Moscato – Italy – NV, about $15. This wine is a bright golden color with slight effervescence and a floral nose of peach and orange blossom. It has flavors of peach, apricot and honey. It’s sweet, as fermentation was stopped, leaving residual sugar. It makes a perfect prelude to dinner or dessert wine. Alcohol, 5.5 percent.

Recommended: Dreyfus Ashby & Co. – Cloudline – Pinot Noir – Willamette Valley, Oregon, 2011, about $25. Dark ruby red in color with a nose of smoky red cherries. This wine was made to let its subtle nuances reveal themselves, hence a modest alcohol content of 13.5 percent. You’ll find subtle flavors of red berries and plum with a hint of anise. It’s light in body with soft tannins.

Recommended: Rombauer – Zinfandel – Napa Valley, California, 2011, about $35. This is a very New World wine with massive, jammy fruit forward flavors and aromas of boysenberry and black cherry. It contains 6 percent Petite Sirah, which gives it a little extra depth, layering and hue. It’s aged for 15 months in French and American Oak. You’ll find it well balanced so you might be unaware that it has 15.9 percent alcohol.

Jim and Marie Oskins live in the Lake Wylie area. For questions, email them at winetime@comporium.net.

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