One of the hottest issues in wine circles these days is the ongoing rising alcohol levels in wine. Obviously, wine wouldn’t be wine without the alcohol, and the kick is part of the pleasure it delivers. However for years, there has been an ongoing debate in the wine world about whether or not high alcohol levels are a good or a bad thing.
What is classified as a “high-alcohol wine” anyway? Surprisingly, for a concept that stimulates such a heated dispute, there is no universal agreement on this question. For the sake of simplicity, the alcohol of any wine in excess of 14.5% ABV (Alcohol by Volume) can be said to be high. If we’re speaking legally, a “table wine” is one with an alcohol content under 14%, and anything over that is considered a “dessert” wine. As recently as the 1980s, the benchmark was 13.5% and a few decades earlier, it might have been 12.5%. EU regulations allow a half-point of flexibility, so wines labelled 15% are often closer to 15.5%, while those declaring 15.5% are likely near 16%.
Currently, one can find wines in the market ranging wildly from as low as 5.5% to 23% ABV. Briefly we may identify the following levels of alcohol in red and white wines:
Low Alcohol Wines: Under the 10% ABV level, most wines will be light in body and sweet. The reason why they tend to be sweet is from the leftover grape sugar in the wine after the desired alcohol-level is reached. Leftover sweetness in wine is called residual sugar (RS) and comes from the sweetness of grapes at harvest time.
Medium-Low Alcohol Wines: Wines ranging from 10%-11.5% ABV are usually produced when less-sweet grapes are used to make wine. It’s pretty common to see white wines with medium-low alcohol from cooler climate regions. There are also several sparkling wines in this alcohol content category because the wine producers pick the grapes a little earlier in the season to ensure that the wines stay zesty with higher acidity to compliment the bubbles.
Medium Alcohol Wines: Most European wines will be in this range of 11.5%-13.5%, as well as dry American bargain wines.
High Alcohol Wines: High alcohol wines are made one of two possible ways: naturally or with fortification. Fortified wine is when a neutral spirit (usually a distilled grape brandy) is added to wine to increase the alcohol content. The original purpose of fortifying wine was to preserve their flavour. It is rather rare to find a natural high alcohol wine. High alcohol dessert wines like Port, Marsala, Madeira, Commandaria and Sherry are typical fortified wines!
The debate may never see an end, however what everyone agrees on is the clear difference between today’s wines and those made decades ago when the level of alcohol was around the 12% mark. Now, you’d have difficulty finding a great deal of red wines around this range. You’re more likely to encounter wines with an alcohol content around 13%-14%, with many climbing even higher.
Embedded in the discussion are a number of questions. How widespread is high alcohol wine production? What is its cause? Are they a problem, and what can be done about them? Does it need to be controlled? And if so, how? Then there are the health issues of moderate consumption. Is alcohol good for you? Does a drink a day really prevent heart attacks?
In order to answer these questions, one has to go back to the basics of winemaking. Alcohol is produced by the fermentation of sugars by yeast, and so it follows that the higher the sugar level in the grapes, the higher the final alcohol level in the wine when it is fermented to dryness.
Sugar accumulates in grapes during the ripening process, being produced by the process of photosynthesis in the leaves and stems of the grapevine. In parallel, physiological grape ripeness is taking place which leads to reductions in acidity, changes in tannins and generally to flavour ripeness. Higher sugar levels at harvest time produce higher alcohol, and warmer growing conditions may cause sugar accumulation to increase more rapidly than flavour, leaving the winemaker with a choice of two evils: a high alcohol content or partly unripe grapes. In ideal climates, the two ripeness curves intersect: physiological maturity is reached at a sensible sugar level where the acidity is also at the appropriate level.
In cool climates, the physiological ripeness precedes sugar ripeness. Indeed, throughout much of Europe, the only measurement required as harvest time comes round is the level of sugar in the grapes. Once this reaches a certain level, you can assume that the grapes are ripe. In warm climates, physiological ripeness frequently trails sugar ripeness. Winemakers who wait for physiological ripeness often have to contend with high sugar and thus high alcohol levels, and the need to acidify, too.
Generally speaking, a lack of physiological ripeness is more detrimental to wine quality than a lack of sugar ripeness: it’s much easier to correct a lack of sugar ripeness than it is to correct a lack of physiological ripeness.
There are a number of proposed explanations for elevated alcohol levels in wine. Vineyard practices and climate change have yielded wines with high alcohol levels that used to be seen only in New World productions. Hot, dry summers that extend into September and shorten the growing cycle have replaced the cooler, wetter harvests that plagued much of the wine producing countries until the1990s. Warmer growing seasons usually result in riper grapes with higher sugar levels.
Also, improved viticulture has led to grapes being picked in a riper state than they were before. Furthermore, winemakers have opted for later picking to produce wines with sweeter fruit profiles, made in an “international” style.
Another reason why wine has become naturally higher in alcohol has a lot to do with science. Back in the 1950’s, the yeast would not survive in alcohol levels too much higher than 13.5% ABV. In fact, it was common to get a “stuck fermentation” where yeasts would die before all the sugar in the grape juice had been converted into alcohol. Today however, we’ve developed very resilient yeasts that can survive in alcohol levels as high as 16.5% ABV.
Common techniques aimed to encourage ripening include planting at higher densities with low-yielding clones, short pruning (cutting off excess canes in winter to control the number of buds), green harvesting (eliminating bunches that aren’t perfectly ripe about a month before harvest), completely defoliating the leaf canopy and longer hang times.
The recent surge in wine’s punch is largely a result, scientists say, of a fashion for deeply coloured wines with fewer “green” qualities and brighter, ripe, fruity flavours. But producing wines with those flavours means letting grapes hang longer on the vine, and with longer hang times comes more sugar and hence higher alcohol. More alcohol can dampen a wine’s characteristic bouquet. Most of the volatile components of wine – the chemicals responsible for the many fruity, herbaceous or earthy aromas – become more reluctant to diffuse from liquid to air in higher-alcohol wine. They are wines you might want to drink a glass of, but they do not respond well to delicate styles of food. It is not uncommon to also find heightened levels of alcohol are not everybody choice of preference. Others dislike them, running in the other direction when they hear the phrase “high-alcohol wines” being used. For some reason, bigger and boozier wines worry people. Of course, this leads to the inherent question of how much wine should we be drinking?
Drinking alcohol may offer some health benefits, especially for your heart. On the other hand, too much alcohol may increase your risk of health problems and damage your heart. That has not stopped the alcoholic beverage industry from promoting the alcohol-is-good-for-you message by supporting scientific meetings and nurturing budding researchers in the field.
However, when it comes to consumption of alcohol, the key is moderation. Certainly, you don’t have to drink any alcohol, and you should not start drinking for the possible health benefits. In some cases, it’s safest to avoid alcohol entirely – the possible benefits don’t outweigh the risks. Proponents of the moderate alcohol hypothesis point to alcohol’s anti-clotting effects and its apparent ability to raise the level of so-called good cholesterol to help explain its benefits. Moderate alcohol use for healthy adults means up to one drink a day for women of all ages and men older than 65, and up to two drinks a day for men aged 65 and younger. Moderate alcohol use may be of most benefit if you have existing risk factors for heart disease. However, you can take other steps to improve your heart health besides drinking – eating a healthy diet and exercising, for example, which have more robust research behind them. Keep in mind that even moderate use isn’t risk-free. For example, drinking and driving is never a good idea.
The rule of thumb is that a glass of wine is worth one standard drink and women get one of these a night while men get two. It is already known that women metabolize alcohol more slowly than men, and that heart disease in women is different to men. The standard drink mentioned above is on the assumption that the wine is only 12% ABV. So if you’re drinking a high-alcohol wine at say 20% ABV, the recommended serving size is about half. In a simplistic comparison, it can be shown that five drinks of the 13% is close to four drinks of the 15.5%. A wine at 15.6% ABV is 25% higher than one at 12% ABV.
Whilst there may not be a significant difference in the amount of alcohol that someone consumes between a 13.5% and a 15.5% alcohol wine, it is certainly true that alcohol can change the sensory qualities of what’s in the bottle, and those effects may very well be objectionable to some. So alcohol levels do change our experience of wine, but not in such clear cut, absolute and negative ways that all this carping we hear from the wine industry might suggest.
Wines with lower alcohol contents are also lower in calories. The average wine with low alcohol content has between 92 to 120 calories, while the average higher calorie wine has 110 to 144 calories per glass. Higher levels of alcohol are often accompanied by various sensations on the palate, ranging from a thicker, more viscous body to the wine, as well as the alcoholic heat. So alcohol levels do change our experience of wine.
Proponents of high alcohol wines see nothing wrong with the powerful, full-bodied, concentrated, dark fruity blasts of pleasure that complex red wines so generously offer and which for decades have been praised by critics and awarded high scores in international wine competitions. However, there’s a quiet revolution going on in wine world right now that might change the way we drink wine. Some of the world’s leading winemakers are looking to bring down the alcohol content of their wines. There are various reasons for this trend and we shall look into this topic in a future article.
Concluding this short overview of wine and alcohol, we at Monolithos maintain as our cultural norm the production of wines that are modest in alcohol. Furthermore, we believe that some wines hold their alcohol better than others, however taste is a personal perception, and at the end of the day, there are plenty of wines to suit every palate. Drink responsibly while you’re at it, but don’t forget to have fun.