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Dear Dr. Vinny,

Tasting notes will refer to wine sometimes as being “hot.” I pick up on heat in tasting as well, but what makes it taste “hot”? It doesn’t seem like it’s just alcohol content, because some high-alcohol wines don’t carry the same sense of heat.

—Craig S., Houston

Dear Craig,

Typically, when folks refer to a wine being “hot” or having “heat” on the finish, they’re referring to a perception of excessive alcohol. I think it’s called “hot” because alcohol can cause a burning sensation both in the back of your throat and knocking around your retronasal passages. (If you haven’t experienced this yourself, you could try a shot of vodka and then tell me what you feel.)

You’re right that wines with higher alcohol percentages aren’t necessarily going to come across as hot. It has to do with the balance of a wine, and the relationship of alcohol to other elements, like flavor, tannins and body. There’s not just one thing that results in a wine being balanced—it’s the combination of dozens of factors, from what the vintage was like, to when the grapes were picked, and all the winemaking decisions on the way to the final blend.

There’s one other thing that can affect the way a wine’s alcohol is perceived, and that’s the serving temperature. The warmer a wine is when served, the more its alcohol is emphasized (while a wine served too cool can come across as muted). To learn more, you can check out our handy guide to how to serve wine.

—Dr. Vinny

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