Maybe I Should Be Less Judge-y About Alcohol Levels in Wine

A while ago I was having a phone conversation with a winemaker. I remarked on a Chardonnay (made by said winemaker) I enjoyed with a listed ABV of 14.5%*. The dialog about wine alcohol levels went something like this:

Me: “I really dug that Chard, was surprised it was so good with the alcohol that high. I must confess, I normally won’t buy a white wine over 14% alcohol [ed note: ghost of IPOB]. I’ll look at the label and then put it back on the shelf if it’s that high.”

Winemaker: “That’s a terrible way to select wine.”

Me: “I’m a monster.”

[awkward silence…aaaaaand scene]

But at a recent wine dinner, one I was invited to by Calhoun & Company, I was fairly shocked by a wine. The winemaker was present, which gave me another opportunity to force another uncomfortable moment. But this time, in person!

Let me tell you about the wine.

It’s October, time for some spooky vines at Chile’s Odfjell Vineyards / Photo via winery

Odfjell Orzada Carignan 2017 (Valle del Maule, Chile) $23

Maybe I Should Be Less Judge-y About Alcohol Levels in WineI was sitting at Butter (where the butter is excellent) with Odfjell Vineyards winemaker Arnaud Hereu. We enjoyed a beer before digging into the Chilean wines of Odfjell. The first wine up was this very cool (and served chilled) old vine Carignan made with organic grapes. It’s an all-stainless steel wine, no oak. The vines are up to 80 years old.

So this Carignan ticks off many of the boxes I love:

  • Under-appreciated grape
  • Unoaked red
  • Served chilled
  • Organic grapes

I was drinking this all like, “Damn, this is good. What a great lunch wine, dinner wine, food wine, wine wine.” Light on its feet but with some oomph. I also really dug the label.

Then I flipped the script or, rather, the bottle to peep the back label. There I spied the wine alcohol level: 15%. Dang! That’s like hotter than the sun. That’s a big burly level of booze! I should be appalled!**

Whatever. It was a really delicious wine.

And that’s One To Grow On. The More You Know. [Cue 80s PSA.]

More on the wines of Odfjell Vineyards.

I’d also like to give a shout-out two a duo of wines form the Armador Tier, the Carmenere and Cabernet Sauvignon. For $15 each, a hell of a deal.

Let me back up about this winery. Here’s the story of its founding:

Over 25 years ago, the pioneering Norwegian Armador, (ship owner) Dan Odfjell discovered and felt in love with a small corner of the famous Maipo Valley, Chile. Born of rain in Bergen, Norway, he could not resist the attraction of the austral sun in this Virgilian setting.

(Sidebar: Whoever wrote this, I love that last sentence. Jealous!)

The wines have a very nautical theme. In Spanish, Orzada means “sailing against the wind” and Armador is the name for shipowner.

Anyway, check out these three bottles and try not to be a judgmental monster like me when it comes to wine alcohol levels. I realize I am an aberration. Most people buying a bottle of wine are looking for a:

  • familiar label
  • label with some sizzle
  • deal or wine within a price range
  • good food/event/activity pairing
  • recommendation from email, website, social media, shelf talker, or (gasp!) human

They are not scrutinizing every detail on front and back label, which you can probably only do in person. Would be interesting to see winery websites with both front/back label shots. But I guess that’s what the tech sheet is for. Of course, staring at a technical PDF is beyond boring for most sane people. It’s not fun nor does it “demystify” wine.

Wait, one more thing about Odjfell! I am so easily distracted.

They  breed Norwegian Fjord horses at the winery. Even though I am very afraid of these animals, how cute is this trio?

Maybe I Should Be Less Judge-y About Alcohol Levels in Wine

Frolicking horses / photo via winery

*I realize there is some legal fudging you can do on the listed ABV so wine alcohol levels may be higher or lower than what is stated on the label. 


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Chilean Wine Podcast

My recent conversation with Rodrigo Soto got me thinking about Chile. So it was quite serendipitous that not long after I wrote about it, I got to speak with Michael (“Schach”) Schachner. He reviews the wines of Chile for The Thuse and we had a lively discussion about the state of the country’s wine industry and what’s exciting/unexpected. It’s all on the latest episode of What We’re Tasting, a dang Chilean wine podcast!

The cellars at Undurraga, one of the wineries discussed on the show / Photo from winery website

Get to know Sryah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc.

Also a reference to legendary punk band Suicidal Tendencies is dropped during a Carménère conversation.

But that’s not the only “C” red grape discussed. Look out for Cinsault and Carignan.

Finally, white wines get some love. From “chill it and kill it” Sauvignon Blanc to the greatly improving quality of Chardonnay, red’s not the only game in town/country.

So May Grapes That Start With “C” 

Chilean Wine Podcast


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Thoughts on Chile Inspired by Winemaker Rodrigo Soto

I met Rodrigo Soto back in 2012 when I was visiting the Veramonte winery in Chile. (Sidebar: they have a really cool antique corkscrew collection there.) He’s been at the forefront of converting vineyards to organic farming for the Ritual, Neyen, Primus, and Veramonte labels.

Vineyards at Veramonte / photo courtesy the winery

Recently I had a chance to reconnect with him for an informal chat over some coffee. (We met at 8:30am, not prime wine time.) Before he caught a train to go up to Westchester (which gave me unpleasant commuting flashbacks), he left me with a couple bottles to take home.

Two of the topics covered I’d like to address here. One is the question of price and the other is regionality. And this first bottle points to both.

Ritual Supertuga Block Chardonnay Casablanca Valley 2016 ($50)

Thoughts on Chile Inspired by Winemaker Rodrigo SotoOne of the issues facing the wines of Chile is most people hear “Chilean wine” and only think “value.” Or the dreaded “cheap.” There is no denying that Chile has very high-quality wines at excellent prices. I’ve been a huge fan of its Sauvignon Blanc (and more) for that reason.

While there are some iconic (red) wines that command high prices, like Santa Rita Casa Real, Concha y Toro’s Don Melchor, and Casa Lapostolle’s Clos Apalta, it’s more of a slog for white wines. How do you get people to consider Chile a source for wines that cost $20, $30 and higher? If I gave you $50 and said get any wine you want, would Chile cross your mind?

Consider a wine like the Ritual Supertuga Block Chardonnay. It’s fermented in big ol’ oak barrels but only 18% of them are new. So you get more texture and less oakiness. (Some of the wine is also fermented in concrete eggs, which I’d call hip but they are getting so popular I don’t even know if that’s accurate anymore. Ok, they are still cool.) It’s rich, it’s elegant, it pleases.

The other issue Rodrigo Soto and I discussed is regionality. Everyone knows Chile makes wine, but how many people drill down into its distinct regions? This wine is from the Casablanca Valley and it’s one of many regions of Chilean wine worth exploring. (If you go here and click on the “See Chilean Valleys” tab you get an idea of how far these regions stretch up and down the country.)

Veramonte Pinot Noir 2016 ($11)

Though I’m steering you to think of Chile beyond budget wines, I have to toot its horn for very good Pinot Noir at outstanding prices. In my wine shop I’d have at least a three-case stack of the Veramonte Pinot Noir, with the top box meeting my exacting specifications for how you cut a case of wine with a box knife. Now I’m having flashbacks to sales reps and merchandisers with sloppy cardboard case cutting techniques. (Shudder.)

I always consider finding good Pinot Noir under $15 to be like the quest for the Holy Grail. (Sidebar: I recently saw the 1981 movie “Excalibur” for the first time in decades. The cast is spectacular: Helen Mirren, Gabriel Byrne, Liam Neeson, and Patrick Stewart, to name a few. It’s very weird, moody, and dark. Highly recommend.)

So the Veramonte Pinot Noir (screwcap closure, BTW) has a little bit of oomph. It’s not a light, delicate wine but more medium-bodied. Nice to note it’s 100% Pinot Noir. A lot of cheap Pinot has just enough Pinot Noir to be labeled as such, usually pumped-up with Syrah or whatever other grapes are lying around.

In conclusion: Chile is worth your premium dollars and is a multi-faceted country when it comes to regional wine nuances. You don’t have to spend $50 to experience this but if your ceiling for Chilean wine is, say, $15 and under, don’t hesitate to get into that $25+ range. Thanks to Rodrigo Soto for his time and a thought-provoking conversation. It’s definitely the most consideration I’ve given wine at 8:30 in the morning, and possibly later in the day, too.

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