You know the type? The type who tastes a wine, contemplates it expressionlessly, casually picks up the bottle–eyes darting surreptitiously, finds the alcohol content and then, not before confirming that the number fits within parameters deemed either acceptable or unacceptable, levies judgment in the form of an accepting nod or a disturbed dismissal:
“This tastes hot.”
In general, I’m not a fan of many “high alcohol” wines. Let’s set that arbitrary mark for me as white wines over 13.5% and red wines over 14.5%. In my experience, however, there’s nothing intrinsic to the alcohol level that makes a wine “good” or “bad” or “acceptable” or “unacceptable.” What I think people confuse is that elevated alcohol levels often correlates with one-dimensional over-extracted wines, however that does not necessarily mean that high alcohol causes one-dimensional over-extracted wines.
Certain varietals, from certain regions, make wines that are well-expressed at ABV levels pushing 15% or even higher. Certain varietals, from certain regions, make wines that are poorly-expressed at ABV levels below 13%. Balance, depth and structure are paramount in determining the quality of a wine. Alcohol level is merely an ex post facto determinant to appeal to when dismissing a wine which, despite finding it appealing, the taster’s sixth “alcohol” sense pulls a trigger in the brain, reminding the taster that they’re “supposed” to not like this wine.
Good wine, even “natural” wine, can be more than 14% alcohol in the right hands in the right place and a haphazardly made lower alcohol wine can taste like rubbing alcohol and Gold Bond. To categorically reject a wine based solely, or even primarily, on its alcohol level is foolish. It’s also a practice that, although existent, is not prevalent, despite the misguided impressions of the be-page boy haircutted wine elite.
In the end, we just want good wine. And good wine can exist regardless of color, alcohol level, and label quality or mis-quality. It’s what’s in the bottle that counts and every wine should be evaluated solely on that.
Drink the wine, make your determination, then check the label.
Here are few regions that can make very good higher alcohol wines: Zinfandel and Petite Sirah from Paso Robles, Dry Creek Valley and Lodi; some Cabernet Sauvignon and Meritage blends from the hotter pockets of Napa and Sonoma County; Syrah and Rhone blends from Santa Ynez Valley. I’m sure there are more.