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Monday, February 25, 2008

A Debate is Starting About California's Big Alcohol Reds

Most textbooks comparing beer, wine and spirits will use 5 percent alcohol by volume for beer, 12 percent alcohol by volume for wine and 80 proof (40 percent alcohol by volume) for spirits in the examples matching the strengths of each product.

In the last few years, high gravity beers have picked up steam and have grabbed a greater share of the market. Several states have passed bills recently to allow the higher strength beers to be sold. Some argue that while these beers are attracting consumers, that there should be more session beers available, under 4 percent alcohol by volume. Now a debate is starting in California over a trend among a number of wineries marketing red wines that are up to 16 percent alcohol by volume.

Winemakers continue to chase riper, full flavored reds. To get there, harvests are often delayed to build up the big red character in the wines. When you get concentrated fruits and a chewy feel to the wine, this also means the grapes tend to be ripper and have more sugar. The additional sugar converts to more alcohol once the juice is fermented.

During a recent trip to California I encountered a number of reds -- particularly cabernet sauvignons and Bordeaux-style blends -- that were above the 14% alcohol by volume mark. California wineries are blessed and cursed by this fact. On one side are some retailers who do not want to sell the higher alcohol wines and some consumers looking for lighter reds. On the other side are two strong forces: one is nature, the growing conditions in California allow grapes to be left on the vine longer and hot weather further intensifies the flavors and the sugars; and the other is marketing, which has done a terrific job promoting the big red as the quintessential California wine.

As longer as consumer demand exists for these big, bold reds, winemakers will produce them. Up to this point most consumers have either not noticed or don't mind that these wines come with 20-30 percent more alcohol.

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