Alcohol Levels In Wine: How Much Is Too Much?

Category: Drink

Trends come and go in wine. One day Chardonnay is ruling the market and the next, it's New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc! In the past couple of years there has been a lot of talk about the rising alcohol levels in wine, and there is no denying that many wine producers are pushing the envelope in this category. The question is: how much is too much?

The truth is, there have always been classic wines in the world in which alcohol levels creep into the high 15-17% range. Think about Chateauneuf du Pape reds. Think about Amarone! These wines consistently hit the 16% abv (alcohol-by-volume) mark, and it's nothing new. New World winemaking styles, however, (especially in the USA and Australia) have advocated leaving the grapes on the vine as long as possible to achieve the highest amount of flavor ripeness. As those grapes linger on the vine and eventually start to become more like raisins, sugars continue to accumulate, and all of those sugars then turn to alcohol during fermentation.

There are a few major problems with this scenario, the most important of them all being that this style of winemaking can produce wines of little balance. As sugar levels increase in the grapes, acid levels decrease. Likewise, the point of flavor ripeness can sometimes be far past the point of tannin ripeness. Balance is arguably the most important aspect of a wine. While acid, tannins, sugar and alcohol are all indeed important, if these components don’t fit together seamlessly a wine can fall apart and taste awkward.

You may be thinking, “so what are typical levels of alcohol in wine?” Well, they differ based on style. Here is a basic outline:

- Champagnes and sparkling wines tend to be around 11% alcohol.
- In a general sense, dry white wines tend to lie in the 12-13% range.
- Lighter reds like Pinot Noir: 13-14%
- Most medium to full reds: 13.5-14.5%
- And then there are reds like Zinfandel, Grenache, and Shiraz: 14-15.5%
- Port, madeira, fortifieds and dessert wines: 17-21%

If you start to take notice of the percentage of ABV on wine labels, you might be surprised to see that many don’t fall into these ranges at all. A Verdelho from Molly Dooker will contain a whopping 16% alcohol. Even many New World Pinot Noir wines now sit comfortably in the 14-15% range. Many examples of California Zinfandel or Australian Grenache will creep up to 17%, and since fortified wines like Port start at 17% alcohol, this is rather interesting, to say the least. If you notice a heat on the back of your palate when tasting a wine, or if the wine has a spirit-like aroma, these sensory characteristics are coming from the alcohol in the wine. 

Time will tell whether or not this trend of grand ripeness and high alcohol will prevail. There are many wine producers standing strong against this issue, refusing to make wines with more than 13.5-14% alcohol. In the meantime, you can form your own opinions on this topic through continued wine consumption. This type of homework isn’t so bad, is it?

About the Author
Katie Delaney is a winemaker by trade, Advanced Sommelier, oenophile and founder of The Rebel Wine Collective. She’s seen the wine industry from two very different sides of the spectrum - one of which involves stilettos, and the other steel-toed boots - but the wealth of knowledge that Enology and Viticulture have to offer is what she loves most about the world of wine. Katie spends her days working with, teaching, and learning from wine fanatics.