There have been major rants and counter-rants (their words not mine) lately about high alcohol wines by Alder Yarrow at Vinography and Thor Iverson at oenoLogic, there's lots of good thinking, interesting reading and great debate in these two posts. However, I think they miss the major point on this issue.
Nobody who has tasted a lot of wine can deny that they've tasted many wines with high alcohol that worked. Wines that despite their potent alcohol were balanced, interesting to drink, complex and great with food. There is also the reality that not all varieties are created equal when it comes to gracefully carrying high alcohol levels. For example the elegant pinot noir is often overwhelmed by alcohol levels that zinfandel and syrah lightly carry.
The issue should not be the alcohol level of the wine, but if the wine tastes balanced and still reflects the 3 V's of great wine: variety, vineyard and vintage. It is here that higher alcohol wines often fail, but the reason is not the alcohol level itself.
The faults often blamed on high alcohol come not from alcohol itself, but the fact that the grapes were harvested super-ripe, which is just another word for overripe. These overripe grapes, which are the fashion as one of the routes to pointy wines, obliterate the three V's as varietal character disappears as does the personalities of vineyard and vintage. A byproduct of these overripe grapes is high alcohol, which is created by combining exaggerated sugar levels with super-efficient cultured yeasts that can keep eating sugar and excreting more alcohol no matter the alcohol level in the fermenter. In the old days all the yeasts would have died, but today's macho yeasts can handle 16%+ with no problem. The result of all this is a wine with huge fruit flavors of indeterminate origin, 4.0 pH, 15% alcohol and 90+ points. Of course, it has only a generic personality as it could come from anywhere as can easily be seen in wines from Spain, Australia and California that are totally interchangeable and indistinguishable. After all, what is an appropriate alcohol level for a stateless wine with no varietal character?
The first issue should be if the wine has any personality at all before we get to the alcohol level. Once that issue has been resolved we can think about wether the alcohol level is appropriate. Appropriate alcohol levels also should vary by vintage and a winemaker that makes natural wines will have alcohol levels that change year-to-year. My experience is that even in hotter vintages that produce higher alcohol levels well made wines will achieve a balance that works, although it may take some time to attain equilibrium. No, wines from a hot vintage may not be the best a producer makes, but they can be excellent wines. The key issue for the winemaker is to harvest ripe, but not overripe grapes each year if they wish to produce distinctive wines. Ripe grapes produce wines with alcohol levels that will find a natural balance in the wine of that year, but wines from overripe grapes produce not only out of balance alcohol levels, but cannot achieve any kind of natural balance as every aspect of the wine becomes distorted and exaggerated.
It's overripe grapes, not demon alcohol, that are the villains in this debate.