Why alcohol levels in wine are rising

Alcohol levels are rising in wine. Consumers are becoming increasingly aware of this fact and starting to question this new phenomenon. It is one of the most frequently-asked questions by readers of this column – and by those who attend my wine tastings.

Wine merchants and restaurateurs are also facing the same questions. Some restaurants now state the alcohol level alongside each wine. “I started putting the ABVs on my wine list several years ago as we were being asked so often,” says Stewart Spence, owner of Aberdeen’s Marcliffe Hotel.

“Customers do ask us about ABV. Most want lighter wines, but not all. It is all down to personal preferences as some prefer heavier wines,” says Zubair Mohammed of Raeburn Wines in Edinburgh.

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ABV is the alcohol level by volume, which can range from anything from 5 per cent for sweet Italian Moscato d’Asti up to 20 per cent for a fortified wine like madeira or port. Wines from cooler climates tend to have lower alcohol levels, but the vast majority of table wines on our shelves, many from warmer climates, range from 12.5 per cent up to 15 per cent.

The alcohol level in a table wine (as opposed to fortified wine which has had grape spirit added) relates to the sugar level in the grape when it is picked. Leaving a grape longer on the vine to ensure it is “phenolically” ripe, with softer riper tannins to give a smoother mouth-feel, means that the sugar level rises in the grape.

A study by the American Association of Wine Economists a few years ago confirmed that levels of alcohol in the wines we buy today are rising. Surveying alcohol levels in more than 129,000 samples of wines imported over a period of 18 years from 1992, they discovered that the average level has increased by at least 1.2 per cent in that period.

Interestingly, they concluded that the average level of New World wines was at 13.65 per cent and the average level of European wines at 13.01 per cent. In my experience, the level is higher. I routinely find wines from Argentina, California, South Africa, Australia and even warmer parts of Europe such as southern parts of Spain, Italy and France at 14-15 per cent – and some above this figure.

You can check the alcohol level on the label of the bottle you buy. By law the ABV percentage must be stated, but often the figure is so tiny you can barely read it in a dimly-lit shop.

What is less well-known is that official figures on the label are often “rounded out”. According to the AAWE survey, it is likely to be understated by as much as 0.39 per cent for Old World wines and 0.45 per cent for New World wines. So a wine you thought was 14.5 per cent might be higher – closer to 15 per cent.

Winemakers do not want to advertise on the label about their thumpingly high alcohol level, so they average it down rather than up.

So why are alcohol levels rising? Reasons cited include changing consumer tastes requiring fuller softer wines, to the influence of American journalist Robert Parker who likes big, powerful styles which encourages the practice of later picking to get riper tannins.

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Some mention global warming, but the AAWE survey compared alcohol levels and temperatures and found alcohol levels had risen higher than equivalent temperatures.

Wine awards at international wine competitions do not help as many go to big powerful “fruit-bomb” wines with soft ripe tannins, rather than to lighter delicate wines. Why not introduce an award for the best wine under 12 per cent alcohol?

Some winemakers are exploring different methods of managing alcohol levels. “There are various canopy management techniques, later pruning methods, leaf plucking and irrigation techniques that we are looking at,” says Gottfried Mock, winemaker at Cape Chamonix in South Africa.

The print showing alcohol levels on labels should be larger and supermarkets could promote lighter styles. Once consumers are aware of the levels they can make informed choices about what they buy and drink.

Here is a quick guide for those interested in watching their levels:

5 per cent Moscato d’Asti

8-10 per cent German riesling (off dry kabinett, sweeter spätlese and auslese); Italian lambrusco

11-11.5 per cent Prosecco; English still wines; Spanish txakolina; Australian Hunter semillon; Loire wines

12-12.5 per cent Champagne and sparkling wine; Beaujolais; Greek moschofilero

12.5-13 per cent French and Italian wines

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13-14.5 per cent Southern French, Italian and Spanish wines; New World still wines

14.5-15+ per cent South African pinotage; Californian zinfandel; Australian shiraz; Argentine malbec; Italian amarone

15-17 per cent Fino sherry; Vin doux naturel (eg muscat de Beaumes de Venise, Banyuls, Maury)

17-20 per cent Oloroso sherry; liqueur muscat; madeira; port


CUVéE L’ORANGERIE 2013 Philippe & Francois Tiollier

(£10.95, Yapp Brothers, www.yapp.co.uk)

At 11 per cent alcohol, this crisp, dry, fresh white 
made in France’s Savoie region with the native jacquere grape makes a delicate aperitif. From limestone soils in Apremont, near Chambery, 
it tastes like a mountain muscadet.


(£8.99, Marks & Spencer)

A moderate 12 per cent alcohol makes this 
German riesling an excellent crisp, delicate, dry 
wine to match a summer salad. It’s made by Gerd Stepp 
from a blend of grapes from two regions, Mosel and Rheinpalz. Expect crisp mineral notes with floral limey undertones.

Join Rose’s Beginners wine classes at 28 Queen Street, Edinburgh from £36, www.rosemurraybrown.com