Alcohol content is a common topic in the tasting rooms I’ve worked in. Many of the guests are concerned about what they’ve heard about rising alcohol levels in wines, particularly from California. There’s a theory out there that winemakers in California are going after bigger scores with some popular wine critics that enjoy the bolder side of wine. I’m not convinced.
I do know that in most years California gets a lot of sunny and warm days. Sunny and warm means bolder wines with higher alcohol content. I think that some other growing regions in the world are jealous of the weather we are so lucky to receive.
What got me thinking about this was this article from Guardian News in the UK. It states that over half of the wines in the study had higher alcohol levels than was stated on the label. This came as no surprise to me, but I’m an insider. Most consumers don’t realize that there is a law that allows variation in the actual alcohol content and what is stated on the label. In fact, it’s a large amount.
In wines with labels stating alcohol content of 13.9% or less, they can have a variation from that number by 1.5%. With wines of 14.0% or more, the difference allowed is 1.0%. If you think that’s not a lot, it could be the difference between choosing one or two glasses of wine while out for the evening. I’ve had some wines that are in the 16.5% alcohol range. That means it could actually fall anywhere between 15.5 and 17.5%. That’s a big difference.
At 17.5 percent alcohol, the wine becomes a little controversial. The winemaker would have likely had to use alcohol resistant yeast in order to ferment all the sugar out….or….the wine may contain some residual sugar if a more conventional yeast was used during the alcoholic fermentation. To the same respect a wine that states 13.0% alcohol on the label, it could have as little as 11.5% alcohol. At that level, I worry about the grapes being ripe enough to produce the qualities and aromas I’m used to from California wines. Either end of the spectrum could be misleading.
There is also one more factor at play here. Wineries pay different taxes based on the alcohol percent. Below 14% and it’s cheaper. Above and it’s more expensive. If you see a bottle labeled 13.9% chances are the content is much higher.