+1 855.946.3338
Grape climate set wine’s alcohol level

Grape climate set wine’s alcohol level

The alcohol percentage in wine is a hot topic of discussion for wine drinkers. This conversation is often about the noticeable difference in wines over the past decade, as some wines have crept up from a “norm” of 13.5 percent to as high as 17 percent.

What determines a wine’s alcohol content is straightforward. As grapes ripen they accumulate sugar, which is then converted to alcohol during the fermentation process. Grapes with more sugar produce wines with more alcohol. Grape climate sets a wine’s alcohol level. 

Some grapes are naturally higher than others in sugar, but growing conditions as well as terroir have a large impact. If the grape has to struggle to ripen, it may have less natural sugar, resulting in a lower alcohol wine. If the grape is growing in a warm or hot climate, it will most likely have high levels of sugar.

Wine grapes are like any other fruit. If you have ever picked a strawberry before it’s ripe and taken a bite, then enjoyed a berry from the same crop that was left to slowly ripen on the plant with ample sun and ripening power, the sweetness level is dramatically different.

U.S. law permits a 1.5 percent variance from the ABV (alcohol-by-volume content) printed on the wine label.


Wines with less than 12.5 percent alcohol are considered very low alcohol wines. These include rose, white German riesling, Portugal’s vinho verde, French Vouvray, Italian Asti, Italian Prosecco.


  • 2015 Famega Vinho Verde Blanco, Portugal (about $9 retail)


  • 2015 Zonin Prosecco, Italy (about $17 retail)


Wines with 12.5 percent to 13.5 percent alcohol fall into the low alcohol category. These include Spanish Cava, California sparkling, Champagne, Italian pinot grigio, Oregon pinot gris, Spanish or California albarino, Beaujolais and Spanish Rioja.


  • 2015 A to Z Pinot Gris, Oregon (about $14 retail)


  • 2015 Stasis Albarino, California (about $45 retail)


Wines with 13.5 to 14.5 percent alcohol are high alcohol wines and include California chardonnay, Australian chardonnay, Australia shiraz, Barolo, Chilean merlot, and California cabernet sauvignon.


  • 2015 Matchbook Chardonnay, California (about $15 retail)


  • 2014 Force of Nature Cabernet Sauvignon, California (about $26 retail)


Wines exceeding 14.5 percent alcohol are very high alcohol wines. Examples include Spanish sherry, California zinfandel, Amarone and port.


  • NV Osborne Sherry, Spain (about $14 retail)


  • 2014 Earthquake Zinfandel, California (about $26 retail)

Vino with bigger buzz has a price

Wines with high alcohol (13 percent or higher) content have become increasingly popular in the past decade.

Their popularity, in part, is due to the high scores the wines receive from critics. Many times wines being reviewed are among hundreds tasted blindly. Of course when the powerhouse high alcohol wines hit the fatigued palate of a taster they generally will stand out in the sea of bottles.

Naturally, with these great accolades from reviews many wineries kept in step with the trend and continued producing higher alcohol vintages. By letting grapes stay on the vine longer, the sugar content is higher. It’s the sugar, which converts to alcohol during fermentation, that is responsible for the higher alcohol percentage.

These high-alcohol wines are frequently included on restaurant wine lists. While a 3 percent increase in alcohol content may not seem like a large difference, your blood alcohol level and your taste buds will surely react. High-alcohol wine can overpower the flavors of food and accentuate the spiciness of bold foods.

And as for what it does to your brain, many studies are technical in their description. My favorite is by writer and retired physician William “Rusty” Gaffney.

He took a Breathalyzer test after drinking low- and high-alcohol wines. The 5-foot-9-inch, 178-pound Gaffney found that after two glasses of 12 1/2 percent alcohol wine on an empty stomach in one hour, his blood alcohol was 0.05. After two glasses of 15 percent wine, he was over the legal driving limit of 0.08 after an hour.

So, you may want to forgo the food clash and alcohol content by considering these lower alcohol wines for your lunchtime menu.


  • 2009 Whitehall Lane Sauvignon Blanc, California (about $16 retail)
  • 2010 Broadbent Vinho Verde, Portugal (about $10 retail)
  • 2010 Conte Stella Rosa Imperiale Moscato, Italy (about $19 retail)
  • 2010 Helfrich Pinot Gris Vin d’Alsace, France (about $18 retail)


  • 2010 Pascal Jolivet “Attitude” Sauvignon Blanc, France (about $22 retail)
  • 2009 Oriel Or tolan Falkenstein Gruner Veltliner, Austria (about $25 retail)
  • NV Roederer Sparkling Wine, California (about $35 retail)