Fine wine at 14% alcohol is impossible - or is it?

  • Wednesday 10 March 2010

The great alcohol debate is alive and well, with the jury undecided as to whether higher levels of alcohol make or mar a fine wine, Andrew Jefford finds in the latest issue of Decanter.

Can fine wine be made at 14%?

Writing in the April issue of Decanter magazine, Jefford interviews some of the world’s most renowned winemakers and finds them polarised on the question of whether fine wine can be made at 14% alcohol or more.

Jefford has spoken to Fiona Thienpont of Chateau Le Pin in Pomerol, Frederic Engerer of Chateau Latour, Dirk Niepoort in the Douro, Vanya Cullen in Margaret River, consultant Stephane Derenoncourt, the Wine Advocate’s David Schildknecht, and many others.

And they are utterly at odds. Cullen, for example, says you can ‘lose varietal character above 14%’, and she is backed up by Thienpont, who with her husband Jacques do everything they can ‘to keep levels down’.

Steve Webber at Victoria’s de Bortoli agrees, suggesting wines above 14% can lack ‘detail, sense of place, nuance of variety and balance.’

Schildknecht, on the other hand, says the concept is ‘fatuous’.

‘To choose 14% alcohol as a limit means you call into question a fifth of what is produced by the most renowned growers of Bordeaux, Burgundy…and 90% of what issues from the elite growers of the South of France, Spain, California or Australia.’

At Latour, Engerer agrees, though not so forcefully. ‘The expression of the fruit is what counts,’ he tells Jefford. ‘Everything depends on the place and the variety.’

decanter.com visitors are as undecided as the winemaking world. This month’s poll - on all decanter.com pages - asks the question, ‘Can you make fine wine over 14%?’

At the time of writing, 26% agree with Webber that nuance and balance are lost. A further 26% say, ‘Yes! Bring on the blockbusters.’ Thirty-two percent say yes, the Australians seem to have the knack, and 17% are undecided.

And Jefford himself? His view is that the proof of the pudding is in the eating.

The most important thing is ‘digestive harmony’, the renowned writer and critic says. ‘In wine aesthetics, nothing is more dangerous than wine tasting unsupported by corroborative drinking.’

The April issue of Decanter is OUT NOW. Subscribe here for savings of over 25%

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