Wednesday, October 8, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Wine Q & A

Does a higher alcohol content mean it's a better drinking wine?

Q: My Southern cousin was visiting recently and said his wine-buying rule of thumb was that any wine at any price (we're talking $5 to $12 per bottle) with more than 13 percent alcohol content was a good drinking wine. Since then, I've tried this and find in my small sampling (a few dozen bottles) this seems to hold true. Have you heard of this guideline, and do you think there's any truth in it?

A: Higher alcohol is an indication of a) better ripeness at harvest and b) fermentation to complete or near-complete dryness. Most dry European wines are between 12 percent and 13.5 percent alcohol, rarely higher. Sweet wines (such as German rieslings) may have alcohol levels as low as 7 or 8 percent, because a lot of sugar is left unfermented.

Here in America, alcohol levels have been trending up over the past three decades. Wines that used to be 12.5 percent are now 14.5 percent or even 15.5 percent — too high in my opinion.

Vintners will tell you this is the result of a) better vineyard practices, b) letting the grapes get more "hang time," and c) more efficient yeasts.

Maybe so, but wines with more than 15 percent are almost never ageworthy. The high alcohol throws the balance off and is often accompanied by too much oak and too much tannin.

These wines are also hard to drink, as they do not match well with most foods. In addition, they quickly fatigue the palate and have a lot more alcoholic impact than a European wine made from similar grapes. So I would have to disagree with your Southern cousin.

Q: It seems as though every time I open a bottle of wine, fruit flies head for the bottle or the poured glass of wine. Are they dangerous to my wine, and what can be done about them?

A: Tasting a hundred or more wines weekly, I have a lot of experience with fruit flies. I have encountered my share of fruit flies and have suffered no personal ill effects. But they can ruin a perfectly sound wine.

Try this if you are curious: Open a bottle of wine and pour two glasses. Protect one with some sort of cover (a piece of cloth, or a coaster placed over the top). Let Mr. Fruit Fly find his way into the other. Wait until just a single fruit fly can be seen swimming (no doubt with a big smile) in the unprotected glass. After a short while, taste the two wines. The fly-less beverage will be fresh, fruity and delicious (we hope); while the "swimmer" wine will have a distinct, chemical, bitter edge. That's what a single fly can do. Worse yet, one fly can contaminate an entire bottle!

What do you do to prevent it? First, make it a habit to immediately re-cork your bottles as soon as you have opened and poured. Do not let them stand around open. If you are using a decanter to let the wine breathe, make sure it has a stopper. Second, keep a close watch on your stemware. If flies are seen approaching, put some sort of cover on the glass (your hand will work if nothing else is available).

And finally, try to figure out where the little buggers are hanging out between bottles. Rinse all your empties thoroughly with hot water before tossing them in the recycle bin. Pour some disinfectant down the garbage disposal. And then, wait for winter, when they all head south and bother somebody else.

Paul Gregutt answers questions weekly in the Wine section. He can be reached by e-mail at

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company


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