(warning - this a very boring and dry yawn inducing geek piece...)
Wow, we are still talking about alcohol! W. R. Tish recently posted a very nice piece here discussing the rising alcohol levels - yesterday's rocket fuel is today's norm. The thesis is that reviews should contain ABV (Alcohol by Volume) information, and amen - they should. And she is correct that there is no compelling reason in the light of transparency to not include them. BUT, if information is the key to informed consumer reviews, then from a winemaking perspective reviews should include acidity and any "additives" (gum arabic, fining regimen, etc.) as well if data equals knowledge and these are available. Anyway, some nice information is contained within and it is certainly worth a read. But, it is also seems a little misguided and reductionist by overly concentrating on a number that has 2% total leeway plus or minus as being intrinsically meaningful and relatively accurate in and of itself. Quite simply, your most powerful stylistic indicator would be acidity rather than alcohol. First though, since we have a higher level of access, here is some industry insight from within the wine beast:
1. Winemakers regularly put 14.5% on bottles that they know are not actually that percentage to cover the allowed spread on the ABV statement. They know it is 15.3, and legally choose to state 14.5 because it sounds better. This is an industry standard, and that is a fact. Unless you are on the inside, this might be unknown. ABV statements are a strategic marketing tool that is very carefully considered. All that jug wine in the supermarket is not actually 12.5% like it says - most of it is on high side of 13. But it is allowed the leeway to state 12.5 when it is 13.9. Tish claims that this range is moderately slippery and that is o.k., but the very thrust of her piece refutes this "moderate" claim. A review of a 15.1% wine that states 14.1% and vice versa is obviously comparing apples and oranges. The 15% threshold is pretty clearly taboo.
2. Watering back (amelioration) is very common practice in California. Barbera, which can hit 16% alcohol pretty easily in the warmer climes, is often watered back to 14.5%ish. Tempranillo and obviously Zin are the same. Most reds can float up to 15%. This is legal and no statement is required. If we try to establish some sort of direct correlation between alcohol levels and some standard of quality, it would be very much a leap of faith to believe that adding 15% water to crushed grapes to lower the alcohol to 14% will somehow result in a better end product. It certainly is a more manipulated product once that threshold has been crossed. We can give you your low alcohol, by adding water. Does that feel right?
2a. We can add acid in California at will. Higher sugar levels directly correlate with diminishing acid. Most elsewhere in the world higher alcohol means low acid wine. We can not make this stylistic correlation with domestic wine laws. Sorry. In Barolo and Toro, yes. California, no. And yes, acid is a manipulation. Alcohol levels might indicate acid levels, but they might not.
3. For larger producers that can afford it (and it is not cheap) alcohol removal is an option. Clark Smith at www.grapecrafter.com has written endlessly on alcohol sweet spots and it does not need to be rehashed here. Many wines have alcohol levels that have been reduced. Little guys like us are jealous because we want to do it but can't afford it. From a naturalist viewpoint (which is an illusion) this is a major manipulation. If alcohol is used as a ripeness indicator in reviews, adjusted wines can be overripe and low alcohol - a conundrum if alcohol is used to indicate something stylistically.
3a. On a similar note, many producers add concentrate back to sweeten white wine just before bottling, adding extra nose and body. Sauvignon Blanc, various Muscats, Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Pinot Blanc are commonly adjusted varietals This is the sussreserve technique used in many German wines, and sometimes this is cited to support its use. HOWEVER, QMP wines are allowed to do it, yet it is rarely practiced because it is considered schizerly and inferior. This is a pretty heavy manipulation. And again, here you can have a high-alcohol white, that is also sweet, and may have low or adjusted high acid, ruining the classic alcohol/r.s. Riesling formula.
4. Alcohol sensitivity organoleptically is variable. Usually at about 15+% it becomes noticeable, though there are always famously balanced wines that are high alcohol yet good. I would hate to miss that Negro Amaro just because I erroneously thought that at 14.8% it would be wonky. Also, the people that think they can feel the effects of 13% versus 15% can suck it. One night a bottle is fine, the next night 2/3 is too much. Gee, drink twice as much when a pizza is in the belly. The vagaries of the human body are great and many, and varying widely day by day. If alcohol is the enemy here, you may need to go to beer.
5. Alcohol is part of terroir (or at the very least a byproduct) as ripeness/climate/growing conditions/soil water holding/canopy/ad infinitum. This rubs shoulders with the hated "naturalness" straw man. Some areas have always produced high alcohol wines - Puglia, La Mancha, or Banyuls.
The concern here is that, yes, alcohol a significant indicator of something. But what? To say that alcohol simply indicates warmth or body is a banality. What is an alcohol level preference? In your Cognac or mild ale? What about your sake? Pretty broad playing field here... Certainly the alcohol level effects pairabilty, implicitly when in balance and explicitly when it is a problem. HOWEVER, acidity is more important generally, and this where my newly minted sommelier's hat goes on, pairings are now starting to exploiting contrast and counterpoint more and more, opening up possible venues with what were previously considered clunky complementary pairings. Also, and this where my former chef's hat goes on, food can be altered to be made more pairing friendly. Hot wine, better lower your black pepper level, and pass on that squeeze of lemon if it is low acid. Richer because of alcohol? Tighten up that texture, that risotto should be a little thicker to accompany the Amarone. High alcohol wines are generally low acid (though they can be acidified in California), so watch the acid level in the dish. Either work the counterpoint with acid or work with warmth and body by reflecting it in the dish.
Tish's piece squarely accepts these challenges and the general fuzziness in the beginning. But at the end of the day the stated ABV is still held to be a crucial piece of info. In contrast it may only be moderately informative. Please don't believe that alcohol will show the whole story. It is a stylistic indicator at best, if it hasn't been acidified, dealcoholized, sweetened or watered back. There is just too much legal manipulation in the New World (horrible conceptual tool). We should look forward to ingredients listings if you want conclusive stylistic indicators in conjunction with alcohol. My hunch is that most of those big score U.S. wines have a big wallop of gum arabic and added polysaccharides - all legal direct manipulations. And these are probably just as responsible as brix ripeness for lush mouthfeel, Parker's glycerin fetish and the general low acid/big wine explosion.
This is no apology for high alcohol. Our goal at Rosa d'Oro is to keep the alcohol as low as we can and produce self-consciously old-world inflected wines. We do not chase critics scores. In fact, when we have sent something for review, it has always scored very low, and we don't bother anymore. And we like acid and tannin here, and these are inversely related to sugar/alcohol levels.
So, in short, please do not discount a wine just because it is 15%, or grab a 13% just because of what the ABV statement says. Please don't believe that a high alcohol wine will necessarily be low acid. There are all sorts of bad wines on each end of the spectrum, and balanced ones where you might not expect. If you comb the internet you can find labels for Primitivos and Shiraz's at 15% from the 70's. This notion that high alcohol is a totally new think is false, though it is demonstrably more prevalent now.
I warned you this was long winded and boring....