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How Much Alcohol is in Wine?

How Much Alcohol is in Wine?


8 minute read

Wine alcohol content is important to consider if you’re trying to moderate your drinking and avoid a hangover the next morning. High alcohol content will definitely affect how quickly you feel the effects of that wine as you’re sipping it, too. 

A wine’s alcohol content can also change its flavor profile, something you may not have considered before with your wine preferences.  

It all starts with alcohol by volume, or ABV, a measure that can vary quite a bit from one glass of wine to the next.

Table of Contents

ABV

ABV Effects

Wines by ABV

Table of Contents

ABV

ABV Effects

Wines by ABV

ABV

ABV represents the amount of ethanol, or alcohol, in an alcoholic beverage. It’s measured the same way whether we’re talking about a hoppy beer or your favorite chardonnay.

The higher the ABV, the more quickly it’ll affect your blood alcohol content (BAC), so it’s important to be able to spot high alcohol wines before you sip. Women, by the way, get intoxicated faster than men regardless of ABV.

What is the alcohol content of wine? The alcohol content of wine ranges from 5.5-15.5% on average. Higher alcohol wines beyond that are typically fortified wines.

That broad range is a result of differences in fermentation, the wine’s sugar content, even grapes used with any given varietal.   

How ABV is Determined

ABV in wine is determined using a hydrometer. This tool measures how much sugar is consumed by yeast in the fermentation process. Wines with a higher amount of residual sugar have a lower ABV; wines with a higher sugar content converted to alcohol in fermentation have a higher ABV.

The grapes matter in this process, too. 

Warm climate wines from southern Italy, southern France, and Australia tend to come from grapes with higher sugar content. This allows winemakers to ferment more of that sugar into a higher ABV wine.

Cooler climates like New Zealand, Oregon, and Germany generally produce wines with higher acidity and lower alcohol content. That doesn’t always mean an Australian wine will pack a bigger punch than an Oregon wine, but it’s generally the case. 

Is wine stronger than it used to be?

You’re not imagining it. Wine is stronger than it used to be.

Some of that is thanks to science and the winemaking process. Winemakers have been experimenting with both high-alcohol yeast strains and when they choose to pick their grapes. The longer grapes are given to ripen, the higher the sugar content and potential for a higher ABV.

People’s preferences tend to lean towards wines in the medium-high ABV category. Those are often dryer red wines high in tannins. 

These preferences may be because of the purported health benefits of red wine, an increase in organic and functional wines in this category, or changing palates. 

Quick note: Red wine with a lower ABV has just as many health properties as a high-ABV red wine. The benefits of not drinking wine at all outweigh the pros of alcohol consumption.  

The ABV Label

It’s important to note that the ABV you see on a bottle of wine may reflect a range rather than true alcohol levels. While that sounds sketchy, especially if you’re trying to monitor your drinking, it’s legal.

In the U.S., it’s perfectly legal for the ABV to reflect a range plus or minus up to 1.5 percentage points for wines with an ABV of 14% or lower. For higher alcohol content wines over 14% ABV, the range can’t vary more than one percentage point either way.

To complicate things further, you won’t always see ABV on a wine label if it’s an American wine below 14% ABV. Federal law states that wines below that threshold can call themselves “table wine” or “light wine” instead.  

Many winemakers around the U.S. will include ABV on a label anyway because it can affect their exports. Most countries require ABV labels even with lower-alcohol wines.

ABV Effects

The amount of alcohol in a glass of wine doesn’t just affect how you feel as you drink it. The entire tasting experience changes with a higher ABV.  

Flavor

Low alcohol content wines are typically lighter in flavor, more acidic, and fruit-forward. These are lighter wines often in the sparkling and white wine category. Red and white wines ranging between medium- and higher-ABV are typically dry and full-bodied with low acidity. 

Sweetness doesn’t always translate to ABV. Some sweet wines fall in the lower ABV category, but it depends on how much sugar content gets converted to alcohol in fermentation. Some of the most potent wines are fortified dessert wines.

Pours

As the average alcohol content goes up, standard serving sizes go down. A standard pour of an average red or white wine is 5 ounces, but that only applies for wines around 12% ABV. 

If you’re sipping on a stronger type of wine like a port or a sherry, one serving is only about 3 ounces. Drinking spirits? A standard serving size for a spirit like vodka is 1.5 ounces.

Put simply, the higher the ABV, the less you should drink if you’re watching your alcohol content. 

Aging

Most wines are meant for consumption within at most a year or 2 of their vintage date. Some wine labels even come with an expiration date. 

If you’re interested in keeping a bottle of wine for a special occasion, wines below 13.5% ABV will last longer. The exception is fortified wines. Some ports can last decades if you store them correctly.

Wines by ABV

Generally, wines are categorized by varietal, but ABV can vary based on climate, fermentation processes, even winemaker preferences.  

High ABV Wines

High alcohol content wines have an ABV of over 14.5%.

What wine is highest in alcohol? Wines highest in alcohol include fortified wines, sweet fortified dessert wines, and red wine varietals with naturally-occurring high alcohol content.

  • Port (20%)
  • Madeira (18-20%)
  • Sherry (16-18%)
  • Red zinfandel (15.5%)
  • Shiraz (15%)

Medium-High ABV Wines 

Medium-high ABV wines include many of the more popular red wines. The range is typically 13.5% to 14.5% ABV. A 13.5% ABV wine is still within the average for wines worldwide, although it’s higher than a standard drink as defined by the CDC.

  • Italian amarone (14.5%)
  • Cabernet sauvignon (14.5%)
  • Pinot noir (14.5%)
  • Bordeaux (13.5%)
  • Merlot (13.5%)

Medium ABV Wines

The range for medium ABV wines is typically 12.5-13%. These include popular white wines that are more full-bodied and lighter reds.

  • Syrah (13%)
  • Beaujolais (12.5%)
  • Burgundy (12.5%)
  • Pinot grigio (12.5%)
  • Sauvignon blanc (12.5%)

Medium-Low ABV Wines

Medium-low ABV wines include pink rosé, light reds, and sparkling varietals. The range is typically 10.5% to 12% ABV.

Is 12% alcohol in wine strong? A wine with a 12% ABV is not considered strong. Wines below 12.5% ABV are considered lighter, lower alcohol content wines.

  • California sparkling wine (11-12%)
  • Chianti (12%)
  • Rosé (12%)
  • Muscadet (11.5%)
  • Gamay (11%)

Low ABV Wines

Low alcohol wines have an ABV at or below 10%.

Which wine has the lowest alcohol content? Wines with the lowest alcohol content include many German rieslings and Italian sparkling wines like Moscato d’Asti.

Not all low ABV wines are created equally. Some have added sugars or other ingredients. In the case of wine coolers, they’re more of a wine beverage. You may be better off ordering a non-alcoholic drink at the bar if you’re concerned about the quality of your wine.

  • Vinho verde (10%)
  • Light riesling (8%)
  • Brachetto d'Acqui (6-7%)
  • Moscato d’Asti (5.5%)
  • Wine coolers (4-6%)

No ABV Wines

We’re not talking about grape juice when we say there are non-alcoholic wines out there for you to try. Surely wines are made just like alcoholic wine, with the alcohol removed at the end. 

If your wine preferences lean red, try our non-alcoholic cabernet sauvignon. Feel like something lighter? Our non-alcoholic sauvignon blanc is a popular option. With Surely, you can have delicious wine without worrying about the alcohol content.

Sources

  1. A novel approach for estimating sugar and alcohol concentrations in wines using refractometer and hydrometer
  2. Yeast's balancing act between ethanol and glycerol production in low-alcohol wines
  3. Lowering the alcohol content of red wine does not alter its cardioprotective properties

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