Alcohol. Without it wine wouldn't be wine (and peering into the envelope containing my monthly RRSP statement would be harder).
Alcohol imparts body and plays a key role in a wine's taste and texture. Too much, though, and it can throw off the balance, producing "hot" or bitterly medicinal flavours. Worse, high levels hidden in wine can sneak up and play punching bag with your senses, to say nothing of your liver.
And it's not just your drunken impression: Alcohol in wine, like prorogation in Parliament, has been on the increase.
Consider recent evidence from my tasting diary. Next month, shoppers in Ontario will be able to buy a dry shiraz from Australia called The Formula. It's from Small Gully Wines of the Barossa Valley, but there's nothing small about the taste of this $17 teeth-staining red. It's big, it's stacked with fruit flavour and it tips the scale at 16.7 per cent alcohol by volume.
A formula all right - for a hangover.
To be clear, The Formula, which I must acknowledge tastes good and hides its heat well, was not fortified with extra alcohol in the manner of slow-sipping Port or Sherry. The alcohol came entirely from primary fermentation, with yeast feeding off the natural grape sugars, a process yielding ethanol and carbon dioxide.
It's just one extreme example of a growing number of stealth alcohol bombs lurking on the shelves. Others, all dry table wines recently released in Canada, include: Anaperenna 2007 from Australia (15 per cent); Caymus Special Selection from California's Napa Valley (15.4 per cent); Shafer One Point Five Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa (14.9 per cent); and Two Hands Bella's Garden Shiraz (15.5 per cent).
And actual alcohol levels can be as much as 1 per cent above the number on the label in parts of Canada. In Ontario, for wines above 14 per cent, actual alcohol can be no higher than 0.5 per cent above the stated level.
The scene contrasts sharply with the typical selections some readers tell me they enjoyed in the 1960s and 1970s, the Bordeaux and Chiantis that hovered around 12 or 12.5 per cent. Back then, I recall, my father's generation would raise their eyebrows at a 14-per-cent Amarone, Italy's strongest dry red wine. Back then you drank Amarone with a certain degree of respect and caution, despite tame impaired-driving laws.
A consumer can learn to zero in on kinder, gentler wines by paying attention to geography and certain flavour styles. It will beat switching to herbal tea and coconut water during this post-holiday period of body cleanses.
Alcohol is proportional to grape sugar, which is a matter of ripeness, which in turn is determined by photosynthesis, or sunlight. The short, but not entirely reliable, solution: Look for wines from vineyards far away from the equator.
Not surprisingly, Germany, which boasts many of the world's most marginal vineyards - at or around 50 degrees north - produces many of the planet's lightest wines, notably some ethereal rieslings tipping the scales at 7 and 8 per cent alcohol. (The drawback for some consumers is that many of those whites tend to be sweet.)
Latitude is far from everything, though. Some regions are naturally sunnier than others, latitude notwithstanding, simply because of local cloud-cover patterns. For example, Alsace, in northeast France, tends to produce high-alcohol whites because of the region's unusually dry, sunny conditions.
And if you guessed global warming has been playing a role in rising alcohol levels, you're probably right. Relying partly on historical alcohol-content data compiled by the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (one of the few agencies to perform chemical tests on all alcoholic beverages sold in its jurisdiction), two researchers at the University of California at Davis, a premier wine school, are matching specific vineyard-temperature data to wine-alcohol levels in an effort to validate the theory that greenhouse gases are putting more punch in your pinot gris.
But more significant have been winemaking fashion and science.
Andrew Waterhouse, chairman of the department of viticulture and enology at UC Davis, says better selections of disease-free vines have enabled winemakers to let grapes hang longer on the vine in autumn to achieve richer, fruitier and generally more pleasing flavours. "They can ripen grapes to much higher levels than was previously possible," he said over the phone. "The tastes that they're achieving are simply a matter of taste, a matter of style and trends in the business."
Longer hang time results not only in bolder fruitiness. Higher alcohol itself adds body, subtle sweetness (even in technically dry wines) and helps draw out so-called phenolic compounds from skins and seeds that help give wine complexity of flavour.
Commercial yeast selection has played a role, too. In the distant past, it was hard even for winemakers in hot climates to supersize their vino, no matter how late they picked. That's because natural yeasts would lose stamina and literally drown in their own alcohol soon after the latter exceeded 10 or 12 per cent, yielding a wine with "residual" sweetness. These days most winemakers rely on industrially isolated yeast populations that can tolerate higher alcohol levels, enabling the microscopic organisms to finish the job of fermentation to yield a totally dry wine.
The good news for your head and liver is that, despite wines such as The Formula, the alcohol pendulum has begun swinging back. Wine descriptors such as "blockbuster" and "fruit bomb," once considered flattering, are largely considered pejoratives. Some growers are starting to pick earlier to preserve better fruit-acid balance and avoid the mind-numbing.
"I think that there is absolutely no need to take the wine up to 14 or 15 per cent," said George Soleas, senior vice-president of logistics and quality assurance at the Liquor Control Board of Ontario. "It masks some of the flavours, the fruitiness of the wine, and at the same time you can't drink as much."
In warmer climate regions, it has also become common to quietly reduce alcohol using a technology called reverse osmosis.
But until a sea change happens (don't count on it; people generally love sweetness and dislike higher acidity associated with lower alcohol), here are some more overgeneralizations to consider when shopping.
Some of the lowest-alcohol white-wine sections of the liquor-store shelves include: German riesling; Niagara whites, especially off-dry rieslings; northern Italian whites; Portuguese vinho verde; semillon from Australia's Hunter Valley; dry sparkling wines generally (they're usually picked early to preserve acidity); Chablis; the Loire Valley (such as whites from Muscadet and Quincy); Beaujolais; Western Australia.
Wines to avoid: pretty much anything from Australia's Barossa Valley; Napa Valley; central-California, notably Paso Robles; red zinfandel, a notoriously high-alcohol wine from California; Chile; Argentina; southern Italy, including Sicily and Puglia; France's southern Rhône Valley, including Côtes du Rhône and Chateauneuf-du-Pape.
Some recently released wines that don't pack a wallop:
Strewn Terroir Riesling 2006, $16.95 (Niagara, white): 11.3% (www.strewnwinery.com)
Jean-Michel Sorbe Quincy 2008, $18.95 (France, white): 12.5%
Muros Antigos Loureiro Vinho Verde 2008, $15.95 (Portugal, white): 12%
Louis Bouillot Perle d'Aurore Brut Rose Cremant de Bourgogne sparkling wine, $18.95 (France, pink): 12%
Santa Margherita Prosecco di Valdobbiadene Brut sparkling wine, $17.95 (Italy, white): 11.5%
Peter Lehmann Clancy's Semillon Sauvignon Blanc 2008, $15.85 (Australia): 11.5%
Queen of Syrah Cool Climate Syrah 2007, $11.95 (France, red): 12%
Chateau des Charmes Cabernet Merlot 2006, $14.45 (Niagara, red): 12.5% (chateaudescharmes.com)
Waupoos Estates Baco Noir 2008, $17.95 (Prince Edward Country, Ont., red), 11.2% (waupooswinery.com)
Babich East Coast Pinot Noir 2008, $17.99 (New Zealand, red) in B.C.: 12.5%
Southbrook Poetica Cabernet-Merlot 2007, $60 (Niagara, red): 12.7% (southbrook.com)