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Why do certain wines have higher alcohol levels than others? Which are highest and what does that REALLY mean?

Have you ever wondered just how much alcohol is in the glass of wine you’re drinking?  Have a sneaky suspicion that some wines leave you feeling more tipsy than others?  As far as alcohol content goes, not all wines are created equal.  In this post we’ll cover what you need to know about the alcohol in wine - how it gets there and which wines have the highest and lowest levels - of course what you do with this info is up to you.

First off, let’s review how grape juice is transformed from a popular kids drink most likely found in juice boxes to my favorite adult beverage.  As grapes ripen on the vine, they produce sugar during a process called veraison; as sugar levels rise in each grape, acid levels drop, and harvesting at just the right balance between sugar and acid is one of the most critical decisions of the winemaker.  Often this decision is at odds with forces, like weather, which are completely out of their control. As the harvested grapes go through fermentation, this sugar is essentially consumed by the yeast and converted into alcohol. So, the higher the sugar level in the grape, the higher the alcohol in the resulting wine.  Pretty straightforward, right?  

What are the highest alcohol levels in wine and do they vary with wine varietals?

Wine alcohol by volume (ABV) can range from as low as 5.5% to as high as 23%!  However, back in the 1950’s, wines could only reach 13.5% alcohol, because the strains of yeast would die once alcohol levels reached that level. Back then, winemakers struggled with “stuck fermentation”, where yeasts would die before all the sugar was converted into alcohol.  Fun Fact: This is how and why the sweet “White Zinfandel” became so popular! However, thanks to science, there are now certain strains of yeast that can tolerate higher alcohol content, up to about 16.5% ABV.  A wine’s alcohol level is always listed on the back of the bottle’s label as required by US Federal Law, however, take note: Federal law in the US allows for as much as 1.5% variance up or down from what is listed on the bottle, meaning a wine listed at 14.5% ABV could actually be as high as 16% or as low as 13%!  If you don’t have the bottle handy, you can usually tell how much alcohol is in a wine by the thickness of the wines “legs” - the thicker and more viscous the legs of a wine, the higher the alcohol tends to be.

Two main components contribute to the amount of sugar and thus alcohol in a wine: the climate and the grape variety.  Cooler climates make it more difficult for grapes to ripen and these grapes are often harvested with lower sugar levels. Secondly, certain types of grapes naturally produce more sugar than others.   Zinfandel and Syrah, for example, produce more sugar than Riesling and Pinot Noir (the former having higher levels of alcohol than the latter).  In general, red wines tend to have higher alcohol levels than white wines, which is due mostly to red varietals capacity to ripen longer on the vine and also from winemakers’ style of harvesting reds later with higher sugar.

Which is better, high or low alcohol wines?

Alcohol in wines tends to draw out more intense flavors, which is why many winemakers, especially in California, have recently started making higher alcohol, fuller bodied wines. Parker rankings have been notorious for awarding higher scores to higher alcohol wines, which has led many winemakers to start leaving their grapes on the vines longer.  However, there are arguably more benefits to lower alcohol wines; these are generally more balanced, tend to pair better with foods, and since they have less alcohol, you can enjoy more of them.  Many famous sommeliers and winemakers are bucking the Parker trend and adhering now to a strict 14% rule: they won’t produce or include on their wine lists any wine over 14% alcohol; staying away from what can be higher alcohol “fruit bombs.”  The two camps have very different perspectives about what makes a good wine, which is why winemakers now must make important decisions each year about what style they want to create and therefore when to pick their grapes.  In some years, cooler weather or early rains can force winemakers to harvest grapes sooner to avoid mildew attacking the grapes, one reason some wines can taste very different from year to year, even with all the other variables are the same.

What are some differences between high and low alcohol wines and which regions produce each?

Wines that are under the 10% level are considered low alcohol and tend to be light bodied and sweet, due to the residual sugar leftover in the wine once the desired alcohol level is reached.  One of my favorite wines to pair with dessert after a long dinner, is an Italian Moscato d’Asti, because it’s sparkling (nice palate cleanser), sweet, and just 5.5% ABV, which means that even if I’ve already been served enough for the evening, this wine won’t put me over the top.  Other low alcohol wines include cool climate Rieslings (think from France, Germany and Oregon), and Muscadet from Italy and France respectively.  Medium-low alcohol wines are typically from 11.5% - 13.5% ABV and include many famous wines such as the French trifecta: Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Champagne and Italians: Dolcetto, Chiante, Barbera and Nebbiolo and whites such as California Sauvignon Blanc, Oregon Pinot Gris and most Rose wines.  Medium-alcohol wines, ranging from 13.5 - 15% ABV include US favorites like Chardonnay, Viognier, Petite Sirah, Cabernet, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Argentinian Malbec, Italian Barolo, and Brunello di Montalcino. High-alcohol wines (which are often described as “hot”) include Australian Shiraz, Zinfandel and Syrah, which are generally around 15.5 - 16% ABV.  Other high-alcohol wines, with over 16% alcohol, are often fortified, which was originally intended to preserve wine on long expeditions, but many like Sherry, Madeira, Port, are still popular today.

When it comes to ABV, everyone may have their preference and comfort levels sometimes based on tolerance.  However, 14% is the “magic” number used to distinguish “high alcohol” wines from those considered “regular”.  In fact, wines are actually taxed differently according to this threshold!  Wines between 7% and 14% ABV are considered “table wine” and Federally taxed at one rate, while wines over 14% are classified as “dessert wines” and taxed at a much higher rate, even though some don’t taste sweet like dessert wines at all!  Dessert wines are an intriguing topic to discuss in and of themselves, so I’ll explore these more with you in my next post. Until then, for those long nights when you want to embark on a wine imbibing marathon but not end up on someone’s YouTube post in the morning, stick to low alcohol wines like Riesling or Pinot Noir and you’ll be a winner.

 

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