There’s definitely been a move away from high-alcohol wines in many parts of the world, and generally it’s been to the benefit of wine drinkers. The resulting wines are often more balanced and food-friendly than higher-octane examples from a decade or two ago. It also shows that the rise in alcohol levels seen in the 1990s and 2000s wasn’t just the result of climate change; changes in viticulture and winemaking could also be held to account. Nonetheless, there are still some regions where high alcohol -- 15% or more -- remains the norm, and a handful where wine drinkers are generally okay with that.
I’m not talking about fortified wines, though those seem like obvious examples. Adding alcohol to create Port or Sherry seems fairly extreme compared to working solely with the potential alcohol contained within the grapes’ sugars, though one could accentuate that by drying the grapes, as done in making Amarone. Properly called Amarone della Valpolicella, Amarone has taken a place alongside the greats of Tuscany and Piedmont as an Italian classic, even though it was only developed sometime in the 20th century when producers like Bolla, Masi, and Bertani began using raisinated grapes to make a dry wine rather than a sweet Recioto. The extra concentration derived from drying the grapes often brings the alcohol up to 16% or more; since the acids and flavor components are also concentrated, it makes sense that these wines can remain balanced despite their strength.
In other appellations like Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the high alcohol seems to be accepted as “traditional” -- part of the terroir -- even if it owes its strength to the same sun and heat ripeness one might find in the “over-the-top” Napa Cabernets or Australian Shirazes that today are falling from fashion. Priorat is another region where strength is considered par for the course. Both often featured the easily ripened Grenache (or in Spain, Garnacha), a variety that doesn’t blink at 15% alcohol, though the grape does sometimes struggle to achieve the flavor concentration to match it.
It is interesting that wine drinkers are more likely to accept the alcohol in these Old World wines, but look askance at overly robust New World wines. I think in some cases this is simply prejudice; Old World producers are cut more slack, simply because they seem to have history on their side. I say “seem to,” because, for example, Priorat as we know it today is only a few decades old. Its modern reputation for powerful wines is no older than that of Napa or elsewhere, though there’s little reason to suppose the older wines, from before Priorat’s revival, were lightweights, given the region’s extreme growing conditions.
However, overall there have been fewer “big” New World wines that have the same consistently balanced character that these regions’ wines have shown, so there does seem to be something different happening. As New World producers work to dial in a fresher, less extracted style, lower alcohol seems a necessary part of the fix. Recent vintages from many Priorat, Amarone, and Châteauneuf-du-Pape producers also show a renewed attention to elegance and freshness, but this change in style hasn’t necessarily meant a significant drop in ABV as it has elsewhere. For whatever reason, it seems the wines of these regions need not be made in a deeply extracted style to balance higher alcohols. Here are some wines from recent tastings that embody this different equilibrium.
Amarone della Valpolicella:
Tenuta Sant’Antonio 2013: Shows date, fig, brown sugar, and spice aromas. Rich and dense, with great length.
Tommasi 2013: Dark-fruited and a bit chewy, with some tarry notes. Firm, ripe tannins.
Speri 2012: Aromatic, with lots of fruitcake and exotic spice notes. Elegant rather than muscular, with great length.
Masi “Costasera” 2012: Shows a mix of dark and red fruits -- dried strawberry, cranberry -- and a touch of licorice. Smooth, with gentle tannins.
Masi “Vaio Amaron” 2011: Masi’s single-vineyard Amarone. Full, with lots of rich ripe fruit supported with firm structure and tannins.
Brigaldara "Casa Vecie" 2012: Elegant and surprisingly fresh for a 17.5% alcohol wine, with red fruit notes and a silky texture.
Domaine du Banneret 2013: Full but not overly dense, offering a mix of red fruit, floral, and wild herb aromas.
Guigal 2012: Fruit-forward, with a mix of red and dark fruits. Ripe, smooth tannins.
Clos du Mont Olivet 2015: Leans more on dark fruit aromas -- blackberry, black cherry -- and spice notes. Full and powerful, with good length.
Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe “Telegramme” 2014: Savory, with a mix of dried herbs, floral, and red fruit notes. Smooth and elegant, with a floral finish.
Mas d’en Gil “Clos Fonta” 2010: Shows floral, blackberry, and cassis notes on the nose, with mocha and licorice touches developing on the palate. Full and elegant, with ripe tannins.
Vall Llach “Porrera Vi de Vila” 2012: A single village wine, as indicated by the “Vi de Vila” designation. Combines red fruit, slate, and pipe tobacco aromas. Full and smooth, with dry, dusty tannins.
Clos Mogador 2013: Full and muscular, with notes of pipe tobacco, blackberry, and graphite. Fairly grippy tannins and good length.