Is higher alcohol an indicator of better wine?
Not in my opinion, but one could argue there was justification in the past for drawing that general conclusion.
In a dry table wine, alcohol correlates to the degree of natural fruit sugar present in grapes prior to fermentation. That’s because, during fermentation, yeast convert sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide. Generally speaking, the riper the grapes the better the wine. This perception is reflected in many European appellation laws, where certain wines can be accorded more lofty status if they exceed a specified alcohol percentage. For example, a wine labelled “Chianti Classico” must contain at least 12 per cent alcohol versus the more generic designation “Chianti,” which can qualify with just 11.5 per cent. A “Chianti Classico Riserva,” which tends to be even more expensive and esteemed, must have a minimum of 12.5 per-cent alcohol.
But this sort of thinking has to a great extent become passé. Most producers of fine wine today, regardless of appellation laws, tend to pick their grapes much later in the season and employ creative pruning techniques to ensure riper (if fewer) grape clusters. They’re after quality rather than quantity, because there’s more profit, or at least glory, in high-end wine. As a result, alcohol levels have been rising everywhere.
Besides, the wine world is more diverse than it used to be back when France and northern Italy dominated much of our wine consciousness. Many growing regions naturally yield more sugar and higher alcohol. Vines that bask in the constant, fruit-ripening sunshine of Napa Valley or Australia’s Barossa Valley, for example, will almost always yield higher-octane fruit than those in, say, Ontario, Germany or France’s Loire Valley. Also, some grapes naturally produce more alcohol – grenache and viognier, for example. It’s a matter of genetics rather than quality.
If anything, the alcohol-equals-quality mantra today has come full circle. Many producers are seeking to dial down the potency of their wines while still delivering ripe flavours in a more elegant style. They’re doing so in various ways, including with smarter pruning, by planting on cooler sites and even, more questionably, by artificially removing alcohol after fermentation.