Winecast 64 – Lite (alcohol) Reds

by Tim Elliott on June 14, 2006

This edition of Wine Blogging Wednesday (WBW for short) is a bit different than normal for me as I’m the host wine blog this time. The theme I picked was also a bit of a change for both WBW and my podcast. I asked participants to pick a red wine with an alcohol content of 12.5% by volume or less. Sounds easy enough. No specific varietal or wine region; no fancy label or food matching required. This was a bit more of a challenge than even I expected, however, in this day and age of powerful, fruit driven wines that average 13.5% ABV and up.

Tastes and technology in modern winemaking has changed quite a bit over the past 20 years or so. Most of this change has been for the good. No more are there thin, marginal wines with green flavors on the shelf and most red wines these days have concentrated fruit flavors and aromas. But this has also encouraged vineyard practices of leaving the grapes on the vine as long as possible to extract the most flavor possible. This long “hang time” also increases the sugar levels which is converted to alcohol during fermentation. There are things winemakers can do to deal with this such as watering back the wine or even removing alcohol from the finished wine but the most common approach is to release the wine with a higher level of alcohol that was thought excessive not so many years ago.

So why is this a big deal? The first reason is the obvious public safety issue of drunk driving. These wines can start to cause impairment in the normal half bottle serving which commonly is the portion consumed by wine lovers at a restaurant. Even the old “2 glass” rule of thumb can go out the window with a 16.5% Zinfandel. The second reason is the deadening of the taste buds caused by the attack of alcohol and how it intensifies the wines flavors. Many of these high alcohol wines do not match well with food as a result, which for me is at least half the fun of enjoying wine in the first place. The final reason is the most basic from a winemaking point of view: balance. All the elements in a wine need to be in harmony; the fruit, acidity, tannins and, yes, alcohol level should be balanced in order to produce a fine wine that will stand the test of time and be enjoyable in it’s youth.

I thought this would be an interesting challenge because when I first got into wine, back in the early 1980’s, it was rare that a wine got up to 13% ABV. I remember Sonoma Zinfandels that were 12.8% and even some Napa Valley Cabs right at or slightly under 12%. Yes, there were some green, vegetal aromas and flavors in some of them, but there were also plenty of great wines that never got out of the 12% range. Would there be any out there today? The first thing to do was look over my cellar. Right away I went for the cold climate wines, including a Frontenac from Minnesota that clocked in at 11.5% ABV. This was taking the easy way out and not something I thought would make for a compelling post or podcast (I’ve already covered local wines a couple of times here in the past). So I found some Bordeaux from the mid 1990’s that were 12 to 12.5% ABV. Again, nice to see, but how about some of the 2000’s or later? All my Zinfandels and Syrah’s were off the charts with the most moderate example at a “sensible” 14.4%; most were in the 16% range including one that was labeled 16.8%! So I began my search of the local wine stores reading the fine print and talking with the staff to find some acceptable wines. My goal was not to pick a cold climate appellation, but regions more typical of these high octane wines. This meant California, Australia, Spain, Italy and France’s Southern Rhone. Could I find a Zinfandel, Shiraz or Grenache that would come in under the limit?

I guess the first thing that somewhat surprised me is there are quite a few wines in the stores these days that are labeled 12.5% from Bordeaux and the Northern Rhone. I also found some reds from cool climates that easily came in under 12%, including one from Germany that checked in at just 9.5% ABV! But I was after a more illusive prey; a hot climate region that produces a lite (alcohol) red wine. Sadly, I had to cross off my beloved Zinfandel off the list early with the lowest octane version coming in at 13.4%. Ditto for Cabs and Merlots, although some of these were closer to the mark. What follows are the three wines I picked up for tasting this month that I think meet both of my criteria. Here are my tasting notes:

Viña Albali, “Altos de Tamaron”, Tinto, Ribera del Duero 2002 ($10) – At 12.5% ABV, this bottle is at the limit, but I was intrigued to see what might be missing from this 100% Tempranillo at lower than normal alcohol levels.

This wine is bright ruby in color with pleasant, but restrained, aromas of cherry, strawberry and a touch of violets. In the mouth, it has medium body with tart bing cherry and strawberry fruit flavors finishing smooth without noticeable tannins. Overall, a nice food wine but a little light in the aroma department. Score: 7.5/10

Vinum Cerbaia, “Il Valore�, Toscana, IGT 2002 ($6) – I found this one on the shelf next to the $4 Primitivo from the same producer at the new Trader Joe’s market here. It was surprising to see that this 100% Sangiovese clocks in at only 12% ABV, so I thought it would be worth the chance for $5.99 (your price might even be lower). I guess I shouldn’t have been too surprised here, since I did later find several Chianti that would also qualify that come from the same area and grape.

The wine is medium ruby in color and has the classic Tuscan Sangio aromas of strawberry and violets. The flavors are typical of an inexpensive Chianti (think straw covered bottle), with plums and strawberry dancing over nicely high acidity and medium tannins. Not complex, but a perfect foil for tomato sauces and the kind of wine you drink from a water glass in Italy. This is also a nice value for six bucks a bottle. Score: 7.5/10

J. Lohr, “Wildflower�, Valdiguié, Monterey 2004 ($10) – Finding a red from my native state of California proved most difficult, but I did notice this wine online and was pleased to see it in a store near my home I sometimes visit for their eclectic selection. Seeing that this vintage produced a 12% wine also piqued my interest here that outweighed my concern that this wine might be a little long in the tooth. If you are not familiar with Valdiguié, it’s a grape with a long tradition in California. For many years, wines made from this grape were labeled Gamay Beaujolais, Napa Gamay or Gamay Noir, the true grape of Beaujolais. These sometimes made for light, fruity and enjoyable wines but they never reached the quality level of most Beaujolais. Recent DNA testing shows that only a few acres of these vines were actually Gamay Noir and that most was actually Valdiguié or a lesser clone of Pinot Noir.

This wine had a deeper color and a lot more aromas than the first two wines tasted. The rich ruby color and fruity strawberry aromas made me think of Cru Beaujolais. Bright flavors of strawberry and cranberry fills the mouth finishing with wild cherry cough drop flavors and tart acidity. No tannins are present to slow you down and the wine almost has too much fruit for it’s own good. Would be nice served chilled, a la Beaujolais Nouveaux. Score: 8/10

So the best of tasting will go to the J. Lohr, “Wildflower”, Valdiguié 2004 and best value to the Vinum Cerbaia, “Il Valoreâ€Â?, Toscana 2002.

So what did I learn from this experience? It seems that most low octane wines available in the Twin Cities market are on the low end of the price scale, although I did see some $50 and $60 Northern Rhone wines I could have picked up labeled at 12.5% ABV. I also didn’t note any green flavors or lack of flavor concentration in any of the wines. The first two tasted were a bit shy on the aromas, so perhaps the alcohol does intensify that aspect a bit. Lastly, all three wines had pleasantly high acidity, which bodes well for a good food match.

One note on the U.S. wine labeling laws. According to a great piece by Blake Gray of the San Francisco Chronicle, there is a 1.5% loophole in U.S. labeling that means that wines marked 12.5% ABV might actually be between 11 and 14%. Over 14% ABV, there is a higher tax rate so some wineries, particularly from France, label all their wines 12.5% regardless of the actual alcohol content as long as it’s under 14%.

As I write this post entries are pouring in from around the globe. We even have some Shiraz that passes the low octane limit and several other surprises. I’ll be posting a summary of all entries on Friday, so if you are a day or two late in posting, you will still make it in my write-up. Thanks to Lenn for a great idea and for allowing me to direct the proceedings this month. I’m very much looking forward to the next installment in July and the two-year anniversary of WBW in August.

Show Notes:
00:21 – Welcome and show theme
01:20 – Alcohol and wine styles
09:07 – Wine ratings and tasting notes
09:15 – Viña Albali, “Altos de Tamaron”, Tinto, Ribera del Duero 2002 ($10)
10:15 – Vinum Cerbaia, “Il Valore”, Toscana, IGT 2002 ($6)
11:59 – J. Lohr, “Wildflower”, Valdiguié, Monterey 2004 ($10)
14:04 – Best of tasting
14:09 – Best Value
14:15 – Wrap-up and contact details
17:26 – Next show theme

Copyright 2006 Acan Media, Inc. Licensed to the public under

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