Reducing your handicap on high-alcohol wines

Given the choice between an 11% abv (alcohol-by-volume) wine or one that’s 15.5%, I’m much more likely to go for the one with less alcohol. It’s not that I’m a lightweight – I can handle the alcohol – but more often, it has to do with the sweetness of a non-dessert wine that such high levels of alcohol manage to convey.

Fortified wines — such as sherry, port, and vermouth– are another story, because alcoholic spirits have been intentionally and traditionally added. But I feared that my preference for lower-alcohol wines in general handicapped me when it came to fortified wines.

Take Cognac.

At first, when I took a sip of it, I managed to inhale at exactly the wrong time so the aroma – the highly alcoholic fumes – reached my nose and my palate too soon, interrupting the taste and leaving me with the unappealing impression of a hygienic solvent.

Which was not such a good thing.

So I did what any eager learner would do. I sought out opportunities to inform myself about the subject in question. In this case, “informing myself” meant tasting as many Cognacs as often as possible, and that practice did, in fact, reduce my handicap on high-alcohol wines.

Here was the meat of the “lesson plan,” pieced together over several weeks of tasting with friends, at home, and at public tastings at wine shops around town.

  • Frapin Grande Champagne V.S.
  • Frapin VIP XO
  • Grand Champagne Château Fontpinot

Here was the catch: my handicap (that is, my negative reaction to the high alcohol) lessened in inverse proportion to the price of the bottle in question.

In other words, I liked the more expensive cognacs the best.


The VIP XO, for example, at $199.99 per bottle retail, was rich and structured and long on the finish. (Some people call it “masculine” though I have no idea what that means.) It was easy on my nose and very smooth going down without any of the raspy heat of examples I had tasted earlier.

So what was the takeaway? What was the lesson of this experiment?

The lesson, fortunately, is not to buy only very expensive bottles of Cognacs.

The lesson, rather, is to keep tasting, keep learning, keep differentiating, and keep experimenting until something – like the Frapin VIP XO – clicks into place.

It’s an exercise, this “try, try again” thing – otherwise known as reducing your handicap.

I’m game.

Cathy Huyghe writes the WGBH Foodie blog. Read new WGBH Foodie posts every weekday, in which Cathy explores myriad ways and places to experience good food and wine.

One Response

  1. What words..

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