Illustration by Alyssa Nassner
Marianne Frantz, founder of the American Wine School, blames Paris Hilton for some of the confusion around the wine tasting term “hot.”
“In the early 2000s, Paris Hilton had just trademarked her pop-culture catchphrase, “That’s hot,’ ” says Frantz. As a result, “calling a wine ‘hot’ took on a different meaning…a hot wine sound[ed] like a good thing.”
To describe high-alcohol wines without invoking Hilton’s connotation, Frantz started to use the expression “Feel the burn,” but she retired that phrase when it became associated with a political campaign. “If you cannot be clever, be clear,” she says.
For sake of clarity, in wine tasting, the term “hot” refers to a wine that has the perception of overly pronounced or high levels of alcohol.
“The extra alcohol will not only warm the palate, it will finish with a burning sensation making the wine seem unbalanced,” says Frantz. “Mostly in reds, with abv [alcohol by volume] levels often exceeding 15%.”
Wines described as “hot” often share flavor profiles, like overripe, cooked fruit or fruit compote.
“Unidimensional, these wines generally lack balancing acidity,” says Wanda Cole-Nicholson, advanced sommelier. “They have a very heavy mouthfeel and may even burn a bit upon consumption… Any mineral or earth character is often drowned out by the heaviness of the alcohol and the braggadocious fruit driving the bus.”
Hot wines tend to come from grapes that have “been picked at higher brix for more phenolic ripeness,” says Tonya Pitts, wine director/sommelier at One Market Restaurant, and founder of Tonya Pitts Wine Consulting.
Brix is a measurement of the sugar levels in grapes that indicates the potential alcohol level of the final wine. The riper the grape, the more sugar, the more alcohol.
Hot wines can also result from climate. If grapes are grown in a hot, sunny area without cooler evening temperatures, the fruit will “ripen the grapes to very high sugar levels, which become high alcohol levels in the winery,” says Cole-Nicholson.
Without cooling temperatures to develop grapes’ acidity, wines can taste boozy or flabby.
“Direct, intense sun develops dense, rich flavors, which exaggerates the ‘heat’ on the palate,” says Cole-Nicholson.
Some consumers, particularly in the U.S. and other parts of the Western Hemisphere, are fans of this style, Cole-Nicholson says. If you fall in that camp, she advises “selecting wines that also have an extra element or something else to deflect from the ‘hot’ character while keeping that warm, opulent, fruity character as the front-runner.”
“Some people really like hot wine; they like the higher level of concentration,” says Pitts. “The consumer perceives the heat as spice.”
If you encounter a bottle of hot wine and fire is not your element, try letting it breathe.
“Decanting aerates the wine, which may make the wine seem more balanced by opening up the fruit,” says Frantz. “Think of it this way: Most wines are built with a core of acid surrounded by other structural elements such as tannin and alcohol. It’s the fruit of the wine that keeps them all in balance. Since a hot wine has excessive alcohol, aerating the wine may increase the wine’s fruitiness, making the perception of alcohol less noticeable.”