Maybe I Should Be Less Judge-y About Alcohol Levels in Wine

Posted on: October 1st, 2018 by

A while ago I was having a phone conversation with a winemaker. I remarked on a Chardonnay (made by said winemaker) I enjoyed with a listed ABV of 14.5%*. The dialog about wine alcohol levels went something like this:

Me: “I really dug that Chard, was surprised it was so good with the alcohol that high. I must confess, I normally won’t buy a white wine over 14% alcohol [ed note: ghost of IPOB]. I’ll look at the label and then put it back on the shelf if it’s that high.”

Winemaker: “That’s a terrible way to select wine.”

Me: “I’m a monster.”

[awkward silence…aaaaaand scene]

But at a recent wine dinner, one I was invited to by Calhoun & Company, I was fairly shocked by a wine. The winemaker was present, which gave me another opportunity to force another uncomfortable moment. But this time, in person!

Let me tell you about the wine.

Spooky vines at Odfjell in Chile.

It’s October, time for some spooky vines at Chile’s Odfjell Vineyards / Photo via winery

Odfjell Orzada Carignan 2017 (Valle del Maule, Chile) $23

Odfjell Orzaza Carignan I was sitting at Butter (where the butter is excellent) with Odfjell Vineyards winemaker Arnaud Hereu. We enjoyed a beer before digging into the Chilean wines of Odfjell. The first wine up was this very cool (and served chilled) old vine Carignan made with organic grapes. It’s an all-stainless steel wine, no oak. The vines are up to 80 years old.

So this Carignan ticks off many of the boxes I love:

  • Under-appreciated grape
  • Unoaked red
  • Served chilled
  • Organic grapes

I was drinking this all like, “Damn, this is good. What a great lunch wine, dinner wine, food wine, wine wine.” Light on its feet but with some oomph. I also really dug the label.

Then I flipped the script or, rather, the bottle to peep the back label. There I spied the wine alcohol level: 15%. Dang! That’s like hotter than the sun. That’s a big burly level of booze! I should be appalled!**

Whatever. It was a really delicious wine.

And that’s One To Grow On. The More You Know. [Cue 80s PSA.]

More on the wines of Odfjell Vineyards.

I’d also like to give a shout-out two a duo of wines form the Armador Tier, the Carmenere and Cabernet Sauvignon. For $15 each, a hell of a deal.

Let me back up about this winery. Here’s the story of its founding:

Over 25 years ago, the pioneering Norwegian Armador, (ship owner) Dan Odfjell discovered and felt in love with a small corner of the famous Maipo Valley, Chile. Born of rain in Bergen, Norway, he could not resist the attraction of the austral sun in this Virgilian setting.

(Sidebar: Whoever wrote this, I love that last sentence. Jealous!)

The wines have a very nautical theme. In Spanish, Orzada means “sailing against the wind” and Armador is the name for shipowner.

Anyway, check out these three bottles and try not to be a judgmental monster like me when it comes to wine alcohol levels. I realize I am an aberration. Most people buying a bottle of wine are looking for a:

  • familiar label
  • label with some sizzle
  • deal or wine within a price range
  • good food/event/activity pairing
  • recommendation from email, website, social media, shelf talker, or (gasp!) human

They are not scrutinizing every detail on front and back label, which you can probably only do in person. Would be interesting to see winery websites with both front/back label shots. But I guess that’s what the tech sheet is for. Of course, staring at a technical PDF is beyond boring for most sane people. It’s not fun nor does it “demystify” wine.

Wait, one more thing about Odjfell! I am so easily distracted.

They  breed Norwegian Fjord horses at the winery. Even though I am very afraid of these animals, how cute is this trio?

Norwegian Fjord horses

Frolicking horses / photo via winery

*I realize there is some legal fudging you can do on the listed ABV so wine alcohol levels may be higher or lower than what is stated on the label. 

**HYPERBOLE. DUH.

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4 Responses

  1. Interesting article – and one that shows that a ‘number’ does not tell the entire story.

    That said, when you have a red chilled, it will not show its alcohol at all. I’d be curious to hear whether you tried that wine as it warmed up later in the meal and, if so, whether it showed differently.

    Cheers.

    • Jameson Fink says:

      Larry,

      Great point. I like drinking reds cool. In fact, I’d like to insist on it everywhere I got but that’s what they made ice buckets and, in a pinch, ice cubes for.

      I was talking to someone about a fun experiment to serve the same wine blind in two glasses. One at “room temp” the other chilled. See which one people prefer and why.

      Jameson

  2. Tim Hanni says:

    What would be even more important is to learn that there are pretty profound genetic differences in how people perceive alcohol burn – Highly sensitive, moderate and little to none. High sensitivity corresponds to people who also find artificial sweeteners tasting horrible, Starbuck’s coffee having a burnt bitterness, a tendency to use more salt (salt suppresses bitterness) and many other markers.

    Maybe someday we will be able to understand these differences and be less personally judgemental – while still telling it like it is for the reviewer – and celebrate cool wines like this with the caveat, “for those with heightened sensitivity to ealcohol the wine might come off as ‘hot’ on the palate, but for the rest of y’all it will be smooth and awesome!” Serve the wine blind to 10 people and a lot of them, in fact the majority, will not complain a bit about the burn.

  3. Donn Rutkoff says:

    Taste buds may have varied sensitivity to abv, and that may vary with other chemical components in a given wine. But the central nervous system isn’t fooled. It will react to a given quantity of abv regardless of your tongue. Hi abv wines make you go dull sooner than lower abv. Your elbow slips off the table sooner. You conk out sooner. Your taste buds get saturated sooner, I dare to say. Drink up.

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