Low Alcohol, or High Alcohol? Here's What You Need to Know

Posted July 06, 2015

Jeff Davis

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Ever feel a little wobbly after a couple of glasses of wine? Check the alcohol level on the label.

Alcohol levels have been going up in the last 10 years.

Between weather conditions, and certain winemakers making riper wine for reviewers palates, the bottom line is this: Wine is stronger today than ever .

There is no doubt in the world of wine and grape growing that we are in a period of climate change. Two firm examples proving this are the emergence of world class in Pinot Noir in Germany, and some delicious sparkling wine made in Great Britain. What these two regions have in common is that because it’s warmer there now, grapes ripen much better. In years past German reds were forgettable and English wine was even worse because it was always cold and rainy in the South of England.

In more traditional regions such as California, Bordeaux, the Southern Rhone Valley, alcohol levels are way up.

In the 1980's it was common to find wines from all of these regions, with alcohol levels between 12.5 and 13.5 percent alcohol. Now it’s rare to find wines below 14%.

Here's what Scientific American has to say on the subject:

The recent surge in wine's punch is largely a result, scientists say, of a fashion for deeply colored wines with fewer “green” qualities and more bright, ripe, fruity flavors. As New World wines in this style have drawn more fans, even European winemakers accustomed to making lower-alcohol wines in less ripe styles are beginning to follow suit. But producing wines with those flavors means letting grapes hang longer on the vine, and with longer hang times comes bigger sugar. The more sugar the wine yeast S. cerevisiae has to work with, the more alcohol it will make.

It’s summer here.

I don't know about you, but this time of the year, I like lighter wines when I drink red wine; Pinot Noir, Cru Beaujolais, Loire Valley Cabernet Franc like Bourgeil and Chinon, Etna Rosso from Sicily and Mencia from Northwestern Spain. Many of these wines, with the exception of some domestic Pinot Noirs are under 14% alcohol. Also these wines will all benefit from a 15 minute trip to your refrigerator. For those of you who who drink cabernets and Amarones year round; I say to each his own.

Rieslings, especially those from the Mosel, are very low in alcohol and very refreshing. They combine alcohol levels between 8 and 10%, with varying degrees of acidity, and residual sugar making for a magical experience. They're also great food wines. In fact, a case can be made that in general lower alcohol reds AND whites match up better with most food.

Higher alcohol is not necessarily a bad thing. It all depends on the skill of the winemaker. I've had high alcohol Zinfandels where the "heat" was buried behind a wall of fruit. I've also had wines under 14% alcohol that tasted hot because they were just out of balance.

The bottom line is this: Pay attention to labels and let your palate be your guide.

--

After spending 25 years on the road selling wine to some of New York City's best retailers and restaurants, Jeffrey grew tired of the constant schlepping, and found his way back to retail, where he began his career in 1987. His encyclopedic knowledge of wine and his passion for wine and food makes him the ideal person to talk to when having a party. He also buys Bordeaux and Spanish wines here for us at the Wine Library.

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