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Alcohol Content in Wine: Creeping Upward?
Copyright 2002 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved. Originally printed February 18, 2002. For more information go to

Almost a year ago, I took on the topic of alcohol in wine, observing that wine, as an "adult beverage," indisputably contains alcohol, noting that this can be both a blessing and a curse. Moderate consumption is harmless, even beneficial for most of us, while excess is a bad idea. Period.

But one thing's certain: Wine without alcohol isn't wine, and for me at least, based on the dismal quality of the small niche of commercial non-alcoholic wine, I would rather turn to fruit juices, coffee or tea or sparkling water when mood or circumstances suggest avoiding alcohol.

Today, let's take a look at a related issue. In an E-mail note, a Texas reader says, "Not that I am against alcohol in reasonable doses, but a high-alcohol wine tends - to my palate at least - to overwhelm, to detract from whatever subtle qualities it may otherwise possess. Am I wrong in suspecting that there is an emerging pattern of alcohol creep, notably in reds?"

I think he's right. While the trend isn't universal, many wines are creeping upward in alcohol content. As recently as the 1980s, it was unusual to see a red wine much over 13 percent alcohol, with whites lagging a percentage point or so behind. Within this range, a percentage point is considered insignificant enough that regulatory authorities in the U.S. permit a margin of error of 1.5 percent: A wine labeled 12.5 percent may actually contain anything from 11 to 14 percent.

But some wines nowadays seem to start at 14 percent and go up from there. This seems particularly true of Zinfandel, but I see it in other New World reds and even bigger Chardonnays; and the phenomenon is not entirely unknown in Europe, where the Gourt de Mautens Rasteau (to pick a random example) is made so big and strong that it could pass for a blockbuster Australian Shiraz.

In fairness, I don't believe this evolution is based on marketing or aimed at attracting customers by providing a wine with more "punch." Rather, it's an inescapable result of wine chemistry: If wine is vinified to dryness, then very ripe grapes, having a higher sugar content, will ferment until their alcohol content reaches a surprisingly high level. Riper fruit, higher alcohol: The equation is simple and direct.

The growth of the wine industry in wine regions with long growing seasons and rare frost has made ripe or even overripe fruit easy to attain in California and Australia; and modern vineyard technology also helps ensure ripening even in more moderate Old World climates.

Should this concern consumers? Maybe. If a high-alcohol wine is well made, a high level of fruit extract and body seems to offset the high alcohol. I've tasted Turley Zinfandels at 17 percent that simply did not taste like they contained that much alcohol, although no one would ever mistake them for a classic-style Bordeaux! But there's no dispute that high alcohol can manifest itself as an imbalance that detracts from the finesse and subtlety of the wine.


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