We all have different motives in choosing wine. There are those hoping for a journey into unexplored regions of sublime sensation, and those with earthier desires, happy when the first glass has them seeing double. There are wines to accommodate them both: a prickly little Mosel on the one hand and a 15% Barolo on the other. Doesn’t the ideal wine, though, combine the two – inspiration with stimulus, perfume with punch?
The three little letters ‘abv’ (alcohol by volume) only tell half the story, and not the most important part. Notoriously, abv drifted up and up (you can’t only blame US critic Robert Parker for this, though his 100-point scoring system certainly didn’t discourage it). I used to ask respected California makers of head-spinning wines, ‘can’t you just add water?’ From some of their answers you’d think water had an indelible flavour of its own. Purists might argue that if fine wine is the precise expression of grape, place and time, then it should let you know plainly it had had an unbearable roasting.
There is still a market for 15% abv reds. Laithwaites indeed successfully sells one from the Languedoc labelled ‘XV’. A powerful argument (from the producer’s point of view) against them is that one glass goes a long way, a second makes you legless, and a comatose customer is not in a position to order another bottle. The trend today is more moderate, aiming in many cases for a target around 12.5% abv. Champagne is almost always labelled 12% (but then dosage gives the cellarmaster the final decision). Strength, however, or lack of it, is as much a characteristic of a region as scent and flavour. Or indeed of a style. Sherry goes both ways: your summery fino or manzanilla is 15% abv; your winterweight oloroso nearer 20%.
Whatever the abv, the essential for quality and pleasure is balance; balance between the intensity of the flavours and the power behind it. ‘Intensity’ is not one of the key words in wine textbooks. It is not in the vocabulary of Michael Broadbent’s definitive Wine Tasting, nor in Len Evans’ deft summary of the business, How to Taste Wine.
Isn’t intensity, though, in one form or another, what draws your attention to wine’s different qualities? It is the eye-catching trait that separates a very good wine from a good one. And it certainly isn’t just alcohol by volume.
Hugh Johnson is a world-renowned author. His book The Story of Wine was republished by Académie du Vin Library in 2020.