Culinary Arts

Learn About Alcohol Content in Wine: Highest to Lowest ABV Wines

Written by MasterClass

Apr 30, 2019 • 5 min read

From bubbly pink Brachetto d’Acqui at 6% alcohol to powerful Amarone which tips the scales at 15% alcohol or higher, alcohol content is an essential element of wine for its intoxicating effects. Without alcohol, wine would just be simple grape juice. Alcohol also plays an underappreciated role in the structure of wines, and understanding alcohol content can help you understand more about how a given wine was made and where it came from.

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What Does Alcohol by Volume (ABV) Mean?

Alcohol by volume, or ABV, is the amount of ethanol in a given volume of liquid, expressed as a percentage. ABV is the global standard of measurement for alcohol content.

  • The range of ABV for unfortified wine is about 5.5% to 16%, with an average of 11.6%.
  • Fortified wines range from 15.5% to 25% ABV, with an average of 18%.

It is important for consumers to know the ABV of the wine they are drinking to understand how much alcohol is in each glass.

  • A 5 oz. glass of wine of 16% ABV contains twice as much alcohol as a 5 oz. glass of 7% ABV wine.
  • You should also be aware that the actual alcohol content of the wine can legally be up to 1.5% higher or lower than the alcohol content stated on the label.

3 Ways Alcohol Content Affects the Taste of Wine

  1. Flavor harmony. A wine’s flavor structure is comprised of the relationship between alcohol, acid, sugar, and tannin. For a harmonious flavor profile, all components should have a similar intensity. For example, a red wine with high tannin should also have high alcohol so that neither component sticks out in relation to the other. Too much alcohol in a wine with lower tannin, acidity, and sugar will taste unpleasantly “hot,” like a liquor.
  2. Body. Alcohol content affects a wine’s body, since alcohol is more viscous than water. A wine with higher alcohol content will have a fuller, richer body, while a lower alcohol wine will taste lighter and more delicate on the palate.
  3. Perceived taste. A person’s genes can affect how alcohol itself tastes, which can amplify the sensory experience of bitterness or sweetness in wine. Alcohol tastes neutral to half of the population, while about a quarter of people perceive alcohol as bitter, and the other quarter perceive alcohol as sweet.

Does White Wine or Red Wine Have Higher Alcohol Content?

In general, red wines tend to have more alcohol than white wines. This is due to stylistic choices by winemakers rather than any intrinsic differences in the grapes’ alcohol potential.

  • Red wines contain tannin, a bitter flavor compound found in grape skins, which winemakers try to balance with acidity, sugar, and alcohol to create a harmonious wine. Because of tannin’s intensity, the structure of red wines can support higher alcohol content while still tasting balanced. A high tannin wine like Italian Barolo, for example, should have higher alcohol than a low tannin red like French Beaujolais.
  • White wines do not have tannins, so acidity plays a more substantial role in their structure. White wines with high acidity and low alcohol are refreshing and enjoyable, while white wines with low acidity and high alcohol taste “flabby” and unbalanced. Wines do not usually have both high acidity and high alcohol because of the way grapes ripen in the vineyard. Acidity naturally decreases as sugar content/potential alcohol increases, so to ensure a balanced wine, growers must be careful to pick before the acidity drops too much.
  • Rosé, orange, and sparkling wines are structurally more similar to white wine than red, and they are similar to white wine in terms of alcohol content as well.

How Does Fermentation Impact ABV?

The process of fermentation transforms grape juice (called “must”) into wine. It begins when Saccharomyces cerevisiae, a yeast found on the grape skins, feeds on the natural sugars in the grape juice. Alcohol is a byproduct of this reaction, along with heat and carbon dioxide. The yeast will continue feeding until the wine is fermented to dryness, which means all the available sugar has been turned into alcohol. The amount of sugar in the must determines the final alcohol content of the wine.

Which Wines Have Low Alcohol Content?

Wines with the lowest ABV tend to be from cooler climates where grapes struggle to ripen. Germany and Austria have labeling conventions that tell the consumer the ripeness of the grapes at harvest, which relates to how much alcohol the finished wine will contain. Fun, low-alcohol sparkling wines also hail from Northern Italy.

  • Rieslings from Germany. The delicate off-dry rieslings of the Mosel in Germany often have alcohol content in the high single digits. When buying German rieslings, look for Kabinett for lower alcohol, less ripe wines. Learn all about riesling here.
  • Grüner veltliner from Austria. When buying Austrian grüner veltliner, look for steinfeder, which means the wines will have less than 11.5% alcohol.
  • Sparkling wines from Northern Italy. Northern Italian sparkling wines like Moscato d’Asti and Brachetto d’Acqui balance low alcohol of less than 7% with bubbles and some sweetness, perfect for pairing with brunch or a picnic.

Wines with a Moderate Alcohol Content

Wines with moderate alcohol content of 11-13% tend to come from moderate climates that have a lot of sun while remaining relatively cool.

  • White wines from New Zealand. New Zealand is a sunny but cool and wet climate, known for white wines like sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, and pinot gris.
  • Northern Italian white wines. Pinot grigio is the most well-known of Italian white wines but other Italian whites with a moderate alcohol content are gavi and soave.
  • French white wines. A plethora of French wines have a moderate ABV: cabernet franc, sauvignon blanc, and chenin blanc from the Loire; gamay from Beaujolais; chardonnay and pinot noir from Burgundy; and even many Bordeaux wines.

Wines With the Highest Alcohol Content

Higher alcohol wines tend to come from warm climates. Sunny days encourage faster sugar development, and good weather around harvest time means that growers can leave the grapes on the vine until the peak of ripeness. Higher sugar content in the grapes relates directly to higher alcohol content in the finished wine.

  • Wines from California. California’s hot days and long growing season results in bold, fruit-forward wines with an alcohol content of up to 15%. Cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel, petit sirah, and even chardonnay are made in high alcohol styles in California.
  • Wines from southern France. Sunny southern France is also home to many high-alcohol wines like Châteauneuf-du-Pape and the blended reds of the Languedoc and Roussillon areas.
  • Dry white wines. Some winemakers dry white wine grapes in the sun after harvest to concentrate their sugars and create a dry wine with up to 16% ABV, like Italy’s Amarone della Valpolicella.
  • Wines fortified with spirits. Fortified wines make up the rest of the world’s high alcohol wines, which range from the Marsalas of Sicily, to the aged ports and oxidative madeiras of Portugal, to the many styles of dry and sweet sherries from Jerez in Spain, which can be as light as 15% ABV for finos to as rich as 25% ABV for Pedro Ximénez sherries.

Learn more about tasting wine from wine critic James Suckling here.