As you browse the countless offerings in your favorite wine shop, selecting the right bottle can be daunting. Sure, one bottle says Cabernet Sauvignon, the other says Chardonnay – Red or white is easy. Beyond that, short of the description that sometimes appears on the back wine label, there is little to shed light on what is in the bottle. However, another important clue can be found on every bottle – ABV (Alcohol by Volume) . Tutorial: Wine Label Requirements
It seems that some wineries want to hide this information. Stated ABV of a wine is often written in microscopic type or in a color barely perceptible against the background of the label. (I often ask customers with presumably better eyesight than I if they can read it for me). Other than the sense of accomplishment you may feel at times when you’ve found the ABV, this information provides consistent clues to the style of wine that is in the bottle. Below is a breakdown of these clues:
First, wine consists of around 80 – 90% water. Most of the remainder is alcohol. Alcohol is a more viscous liquid than water. So a wine with higher alcohol levels will be heavier on the palette. If you have ever had a wine with really low alcohol, like Vino Verde, which is usually around 9% ABV, the wine seems light with a consistency that some would describe as “watery”. A Chardonnay with 14.5 ABV will seem richer and fuller..
Bear with me through a little bit of wine techno-babble. Hopefully, it will help you to understand the “why” in the clues that follow.
Ripeness levels (i.e. sugar levels) in grapes determine the potential ABV of a wine. Wines made from grapes with greater ripeness that are fermented to dryness will have higher alcohol levels than wines made from less-ripe grapes. As a grape ripens and the sugar levels rise, acidity levels fall. So, acidity in wine is inversely proportionate to the alcohol level. Although winemakers can manipulate the wine through acidification (adding tartaric acid), wines with higher alcohol levels will generally will have lower total acidity than those with lower alcohol levels. (I hope this makes sense)
What does all this mean? The answer is different for whites and reds.
While different varietals will all have their unique flavor profile, generally speaking, a white wine with lower alcohol/higher acidity will often express more citrus and green notes. Some of these aromas and flavors could be lime, lemon, gooseberry, green fruits such as green apple or green melon rind. A wine with high acidity will also “tweak” the acid receptors on the sides of your tongue. High acid will make your mouth water, like biting a lemon. You will often hear sommeliers talk about a wine having “good acidity”. This reference speaks to the fact that wines with high acidity make great companions to food as the acid will help flavors in the wine to remain focused when combined with food.
White wines with higher alcohol/lower acidity will often express tropical fruits such as tangerine, pineapple, and guava and riper expressions of apple, pear, and melon. They will generally be softer, easier-drinking offerings. With this said, they may not be as versatile with food.
In red wines the acid spectrum runs from red fruits on high-acid end of the spectrum to blue fruits on the lower end of the spectrum. So a Cabernet Sauvignon with 13.5% ABV would tend to express more red currants and cherry where a Cabernet with 14.5% ABV or above would express more dark fruits like cassis and black berry. Lower alcohol levels can also lead to the expression of green notes like mint, green olive, and eucalyptus. It can also give rise to more earthy characteristics that might otherwise be masked by ripe fruit. Predicting acidity base on ABV is a particularly useful tool when comparing wines made from the same varietal, or from a blend, varietal, or appellation that have a flavor profile that you are familiar with.
Of course, observing the ABV alone is not a foolproof means of predicting what’s in a bottle. It is impossilbe to account for the presence of oak, the extent of malolactic fermentation in white wines, or other manipulations such as acidification and dilution. Any of these things can skew the evidence. Also, winemakers are allowed some leeway between the stated ABV and actual ABV. Since ABV will vary in different barrels and lots of wine, alcohol levels below 14% have can have a ± 1.5.%, and wines above 14% alcohol can have a variance of ± 1%. Even with all the variables, I have found that if you pay attention to alcohol percentage in the wines that speak to you, you will find this bit of information an extremely useful tool to help you choose the right wine for you.
Let me start by saying that I love a good Syrah. It’s a wine that I turn to when I want something to challenge my palette and satisfy my longing for a meaty, earthy wine. To be sure, not all Syrah are created equal. Historically, Northern Rhone appellations like Cote Rotie, Hermitage, Cornas and Crozes Hermitage have provided the model for Syrah. Then came Shiraz.
While Syrah and Shiraz are the same grape, the term Shiraz was adopted by Australian winemakers to denote a soft, fruit-driven style, with high (14%+) alcohol levels. The Shiraz style became immensely popular as it made the varietal appealing and accessible to a broad group of wine consumers that wanted big, easy-drinking reds. This style became the hallmark of Aussie Syrah.
In 1996, the Australian wine sector published Strategy 2025. This initiative set a target for Australian wine to achieve annual sales of $4.5 billion by the year 2025. With this goal driving production, world markets were flooded with a wave of inexpensive one-dimensional wines from Australia. The influx of these wines coupled with the tendency of the higher priced wines to be too “Shiraz-ey” made a significant negative impact on the general perception (as well as my own perception) of Australia as a region for fine wines. In my wine shop, the Australian category over $20 is virtually nonexistent, as there is little consumer interest.
This is how my preconceived notions of Aussie Syrah were formed.
…This is how these notions changed:
Around two weeks before Mother’s Day in 2012, I was asked to prepare a lesson on some select regions in Southern Australia, most notably, Barossa. While I had my own opinions about Shiraz, I was determined not to let my opinions interfere with preparing an objective lesson. As I prepared the class, I learned that the oldest Syrah vines in the world are in Barossa – Some 150 years old and on their own rootstock! The average age of the vines in Rhone is around forty years old. This was a revelation regarding the potential of Australian Shiraz.
At this point, I lamented that even the finer (more expensive) Australian Shiraz that I had tasted really did not demonstrate this potential. Further, many of the great and storied Shiraz came from bins of grapes rather than individual vineyards. A bin system combines fruit from different vineyards, sometimes in different Geographical Indications to produce a single wine. While the fruit may be of extremely high quality, terroir is not expressed. In fact, widespread use of a bin system will tend to homogenize the characteristics of wines. In other words, they all start to taste the same. I thought with the potential of these old vines, it would be great to taste a single-vineyard terroir-driven Shiraz from Australia. IT could be great.
Then came Mother’s Day 2012. My stepfather said he was bringing some “nice” Shiraz from his collection. I brought some “nice” Bordeaux as I was sure I would need it to get through the day (“Needing Bordeaux” was a reference to needing something instead of the Shiraz, not needing wine to get through a family gathering. Actually, I quite enjoy my family gatherings)
The wine that my stepfather brought was Elderton Command 2002 Barossa Shiraz. At first whiff, my skepticism was replaced by joy. It’s funny how things work out. The wine was exactly what I had hoped for – A single-vineyard Shiraz! At ten years, this wine was just hitting its stride. It was redolent with dark fruits, leather, pepper, camphor, smoke and spice, all resting on a firm foundation of silky tannins that must have been impenetrable on release. I highly recommend trying Elderton Command if you ever have the chance. It will set you back about $90. Robert Parker’s review is below:
A stunning effort, the 2002 Shiraz Command exhibits an inky/blue/purple color as well as a sweet perfume of camphor, blueberries, blackberries, acacia flowers, and smoky, toasty oak. Full-bodied, opulent, and viscous, with huge, but sweet tannin, decent acidity, and a muscular, long, 40+ second finish, this is a classic, potentially long-lived, Barossa blockbuster. It’s accessible now, but ideally needs another 2-4 years of bottle age, and should keep for two decades. Drink through 2026. 95 Points.
A few months later, with the Elderton experience still fresh in my mind, I decided to seek out further evidence of down and dirty Aussie Shiraz. I know of a wine shop (not my own regrettably) that has a nice selection of mid to high-end Australian wines. I found a Rolf Binder Heysen 2005 Barossa Shiraz that looked interesting. The alcohol was not ridiculous at 14.5% – There were a number of choices that topped 15%. The wine was $50 and the shelf-talker featured Parker’s review:
The 2005 Shiraz “Heysen” is a blend of three vineyards. It was aged in 40% new French oak, 20% new American oak, and the balance neutral French. The nose reveals wood smoke, toast, game, bacon, blueberry, and blackberry. This leads to an opulent, complex, and intensely flavored wine which merits 6-8 years in the cellar. This lengthy wine will drink well through 2025. 96 Points.
The descriptors “Bacon, Smoke and Game” sounded like what I was looking for. The wine was absolutely as advertised. Mission Accomplished.
As a Syrah lover that appreciates the earthy, savory expression of the varietal, I have found proof that there is Aussie Syrah that will hold its own in the company of the great wines of the Northern Rhone is being produced in Australia. I have only a couple of examples here, but I promise that I will update the list as I discover more.
PS – Syrah Lover,
If you find a Syrah to add to the list, please let me know.