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Packing a punch

29 January 2008

wine Christopher Fielden

I READ in the paper that Californian winemakers are concerned that some of their wines are being rejected because they are too high in alcohol, and it is true that certain grapes are capable of producing, in hot climates, wines of 17+%. In the UK, we are rarely exposed to these, because our tax system means a higher duty is paid when the wine is more than 15%.

In France, there is a useful adjective: toléré. This is used when something is forbidden, but the authorities turn a blind eye. The watering of wine, to reduce its strength, is forbidden in both California and Chile, but occurs regularly, and is toléré.

I can remember visiting a winery in Chile a year or two ago where, on the label attached to a stainless-steel vat, were the cryptic letters CB. The winemaker, when asked what they signified, replied, just as cryptically, “Caballo blanco.” (White horse.) This meant that the wine had been watered — in this case, a Zinfandel, which had fermented out to 18%, and had been reduced to 12%. It may have made the wine more drinkable, but it also gave the producer 50 per cent more wine at little or no cost.

Certainly, it is becoming easier to make wines with high degrees of alcohol. Recently I read that, over the past 20 years, the average strength of wine has increased from 9% to 13%. I think this is an exaggeration, but, coupled with the fact that we now drink wine from respectable-sized glasses, it means that a glass of wine is not what it was, and that to tell one’s doctor that one drinks so many glasses of wine a day is all but meaningless.

In this age, when temperance is being preached at us, I think it is important that we look at what we are drinking. I must admit to some uneasiness when I receive, from the largest mail-order wine company in the country, an offer on a case of assorted wines, all at 15%.

This uneasiness is compounded when their labels have such evocative names as El Bombero (The Fireman) and Alto Grado (High Degree) — with a bonus bottle of 16% wine being offered. Is this responsible marketing of wine?

We are told that wine — particularly red wine — should form part of a healthy diet, but we should be temperate. Temperance does not mean that we should be abstainers. As Dr Johnson said in his dictionary definition, in which he quotes Milton: “The rule of not too much; by temperance taught In what thou eat’st and drink’st; seeking from thence Due nourishment, not gluttonous delight.” Drinking high-strength wines I am prepared to accept as gluttony.

Here are lower-strength red wines that I can recommend: SO Organic Chilean Merlot 2007 (Sainsbury’s, £4.99); Stellar Organics Fairtrade South African Pinotage 2007 (Asda, £4.99); Wakefield Estate Shiraz 2006, Clare Valley (Majestic, £5.99 if you buy 2 bottles); and whites: St Hallett Poachers Blend Sémillon-Sauvignon Blanc 2007, Barossa and Eden Valley (Co-op, £6.99); Otra Vida Argen-

tina Chardonnay 2006 (Sainsbury’s, £4.99); and, at a minimal 8.5%, Graacher Himmelreich Riesling Kabinett 2002, Mosel from Kies-Keeren (Majestic, £6.99 if you buy 2 bottles).

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