Winter Wines & The Role of Alcohol in Wines

Winter Wines & The Role of Alcohol in Wines

During the cold, winter months, we tend to crave fuller-bodied wines that have a nice warming effect. Something that makes you feel like you’re getting a nice, warm hug from the inside.

White wines I lean towards are big oaky Chardonnays or medium to full-bodied whites with ripe fruit flavours from warm, Southern regions like a Sicilian Fiano or a South African Chenin.

As for reds, I like a bold, full-bodied wine with a nice balance of spice and oak. I absolutely love a big Monastrell from Yecla or a chocolatey Carmenere from Chile.

The main thing these wines tend to have in common is a higher percentage of alcohol.

As alcohol is the component that warms your bones on a cold day, I’ve decided to make a list of my favourite higher-alcohol wines (scroll to the bottom) as well as focus on the role of alcohol in our wines to get a better understanding of its importance (rather than just to get drunk!).

As a reference, here’s how alcohol is classified:

Low    Low-Med     Med        Med-High  High

<10% 10-11.5% 11.5-13.5% 13.5-15% 15%+

Very high alcohol wines that knock your socks off tend to come from uber hot climates or they’re fortified. Although I do enjoy a high alcohol wine on occasion, I’m keeping my focus on “med-high” wines as anything above 15% ABV is a little excessive for your standard tipple, plus ABV is now taxed so heavily that the price you pay isn’t necessarily reflected in the quality.

Alcohol - What is it, what does it do and how do we measure it?

Alcohol is of course the ethanol in the wine.

Sugar + yeast = C0², heat & ethanol

Wine without alcohol is just grape juice, so alcohol is actually an extremely important component in wine.

The only exception is if a wine has undergone a process to remove the alcohol to produce a non-alcoholic wine.

What does it do?

  1. The higher the alcohol, the faster the aromas travel from the surface of the wine to the nose creating intensity. 
  2. It can add viscosity and body to the wine so your wine will taste fuller.
  3. Alcohol can also balance other components in a wine or do the opposite. For example a low acid but high alcohol wine will appear flabby or sweet. Alcohol is often perceived as sweetness but can also increase bitterness.
  4. Alcohol has the ability to age a wine, although only if all the other components in the wine are decent (acid, tannins, etc.).

How do we measure alcohol? 

  1. You can measure the alcohol on your palate by detecting the burning sensation in the back of your throat or when you breathe in, it’ll seem almost “hot”. Think of the feeling you get when you’ve had a shot of sambuca… If you don’t feel any of these sensations then the alcohol level will be less than 12.5% most likely.
  2. Swirl your glass and look at the legs/tears dripping down the glass. This is a good visual indication as the slower the drips, the higher the alcohol.

What affects alcohol levels?

  1. In the vineyard: climate is the main component that affects alcohol levels although pruning, leaving grapes to ripen fully, aspect and water can also have an effect. So, you would expect higher alcohol levels in wines from warmer regions as well as riper fruit flavours.
  2. Grape variety: Gewurztraminer for example naturally produces high levels of alcohol because of the naturally high levels of sugars in the grape.

My favourite Winter Warmers

I’ve stayed away from highly tannic “food wines” like a Barolo as well as some syrupy, concentrated reds that can be on the sweeter side like Amarone and tried to find a middle ground. These are some of the bottles I enjoy snuggled under a blanket watching a Netflix series.

  1. Novas Gran Reserva Carménère / Cabernet Sauvignon, 2020 - Chile (Organic, vegan) - 14%

This wine from Colchagua Valley has delicious aromas of black cherry, tobacco leaf and a touch of green pepper. Juicy cherry, black plum and chocolate on the palate with a warming vanilla streak. A great red to enjoy with some chocolate on the sofa.

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      2. Klinker Brick Brickmason, 2019 - USA - 15%

A Californian Zinfandel is always a good bet for the colder months and with the addition of Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon this red has a lot to offer. Deep red fruit aromas lead into notes of dark cherry and spicy berries. Soft vanilla and more concentrated fruit on the palate with a deliciously velvety finish. Try with sausage and mash topped with caramelised onion gravy and smoked cheese.

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      3. Ca' Vittoria Appassimiento Limited Edition, 2021 - Italy - 14.5%

An intensely fruity wine from Puglia made using the appassimento method that concentrates and intensifies the flavours. Plum, cherry and raisins, soft tannins and acidity on the palate with notes of tobacco, spice, cocoa, coffee and vanilla. Great with rich plummy or cherry-based dishes, especially Chinese food.

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      4. Feudo di Santa Tresa Rina Ianca Grillo Viognier, 2021 - Italy - 14% (Organic, vegan)

This Grillo, Viognier blend from Sicily has a sharp, lemon zest acidity balanced by ripe peach, honey & apricot flavours. Fresh & rich on the palate yet dry with lots of character and flavour. This is a favourite of mine with cooked shellfish, fish risotto or buttery scallops if I’m feeling fancy.

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      5. Amu Vermentino, 2021 - Sardinia - 13.5%

This white works well all year round as it’s big enough to provide the warmth you need during the winter, but the flavours are so exotic and vibrant that it’s also a great tipple to enjoy in the sunshine. It’s almost like Starburst and pear drops in a glass with a tingly acid streak. Juicy pineapple, candied lemon peel and some herbal notes lead to a tangy, fizzy acidity and a long, zesty, mouth-watering finish.

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