Although Nigel Tufnel was speaking of his amplifier settings to an interviewer in the satire ‘This is Spinal Tap’, he was unclear about what the number on the dial really meant. It seems that is the case for many of us these days when it comes to what the alcohol level on a wine label really means. I am asked about this more often by visitors lately and feel it is worth addressing here. Alcohol levels have long been used as a basis for taxation – the higher the alcohol, the higher the tax rate. The historical means of measuring alcohol were not very precise and so labeling requirements for alcohol levels had a fairly liberal leeway built in. I have also found that using the traditional ebulliometer seems to correlate alcohol levels better with my own sensory evaluation than compared with more modern methods.
With the tendency of ‘bigger and riper’ wines since the mid-1990’s, that leeway on the label has seemed to give permission to some folks to take excessive liberties with what they report – even across the sacred border of 14% where the excise tax rate steps up. This confuses the issue when trying to calibrate taste with what is listed on the bottle. It’s also important to remember that any sense of ‘heat’ in the wine is also affected by how much other ‘stuff’ is in the wine to balance it. The alcohol number alone tells us little about the acidity and sense of freshness in wine. Just as Nigel’s gum chewing rhythm says little about the tempo of the song he is playing [how can he do that?] or the connection between the title of one of his songs and its style [why would he do that?].
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