A more recent study that reduced the alcohol in a wine via a fermentation treatment I won’t get into also demonstrated that reducing the alcohol by almost 4% created no difference in the intensity of alcohol perception. Now granted, the alcohols in this study were below what is typically seen in wine (the highest was 11%), it still shows that alcohol per se is difficult to distinguish. However, the high alcohol wine did have longer flavor intensity, and enhanced intensity scores for two fruit aromas suggesting an indirect impact. And while even I want to say this is because of the high alcohol increasing the volatility of these compounds, we cannot conclude that because the fermentations themselves were different. And for those who might argue well no difference in alcohol but what about viscosity or fullness that is likely due to alcohol let me quote the authors: the magnitude of difference in perceived fullness over the alcohol range investigated (0 – 14% v/v) was small.
Let me reiterate that I am building a case that calling a wine high alcohol is misleading because we rarely taste alcohol but rather other things that might be associated with high alcohol (style, increased bitterness, etc.?). Increased bitterness, you ask? Yes. Ann Noble conducted a study that showed intensity ratings for bitterness increased with increasing alcohol, even more so than did adding the compound responsible for bitterness: catechin. This is interesting and central to my point. Many people are quick to call a wine high in alcohol when they perceive – in my opinion – bitterness or something other than alcohol. But shouldn’t the wine then be called bitter? Is it true that all high alcohol wines are subsequently bitter because they enhance the perception of this attribute? No. That is just it, winemakers who are paying attention should be able to properly balance the wine even if it is at 16% and prevent bitterness (though I will not comment on whether the wine is too jammy, etc as described above).