by Rose Murray Brown MW

Published in The Scotsman newspaper 19 April 2014

Alcohol levels are rising in wine.  Consumers are also now 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. 

Winemerchants and restauranteurs are also facing the same questions from their customers.  Some restaurant lists now state the alcohol level alongside each wine.  “We now make a point of including the alcohol level on our wine list as so many customers ask for this”, says Stewart Spence of Marquis of Pitfoddie.

“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.  “Personally I prefer less alcoholic wines, so I do look at alcohol where it can be managed”, he says.

ABV is the alcohol level by volume, which can range from anything from 5% for sweet Italian Moscato d’Asti up to 20% 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 today, many from warmer climates, range from 12.5% up to 15%. 

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.  In warmer climates, the phenolic ripeness tends to fall behind the supar ripeness, so winegrowers end up with high sugar levels.  Ultimately, if the fermentation is completed to dryness, that means the wine will have a higher alcohol (ABV).

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 definitely rising.  Surveying alcohol levels in over 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% in that period. 

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

You can always 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. 

However, what is less well-known to consumers is that official figure on the label is often ‘rounded out’.  According to the AAWE survey, this figure can be understated by as much as 0.39% for Old World wines and 0.45% for New World wines.  So a wine you thought was 14.5% might be higher – closer to 15%. 

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

So why are alcohol levels rising?  Various aspects from changing consumer tastes requiring fuller softer wines to the influence of American journalist Robert Parker who likes big powerful styles encouraging the practice of later picking to get riper tannins.  Some even mention global warming itself as the blame, but the AAWE survey compared rising alcohol levels and rising temperatures and found that 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 lighter delicate wines.  Why not introduce an award for the best wine under 12% alcohol? 

Winemakers cannot now neglect the thorny issue of rising alcohol levels?  “I think in a number of cases alcohol could be better managed depending on the area and region.  Perhaps more research and effort is needed on the part of winemakers and scientists”, says Zubair Mohammed of Raeburn Wines.

Gottfried Mocke winemaker at Cape Chamonix South AfricaSome 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 (pictured right).

One issue which I personally feel could help is to have the alcohol level printed in larger font on the label.  Consumers should be made aware of the levels, so that they can make informed decisions about the wines they are buying and drinking. 

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

5%  Moscato d’Asti

8% - 10%  German Riesling (off dry Kabinett, sweeter Spatlese and Auslese); Italian Lambrusco

11% - 11.5%  Prosecco; English still wines; Spanish Txakolina; Australian Hunter Semillon; Loire; Lambrusco

12% – 12.5%   Champagne & sparkling wine; Beaujolais; Greek Moschofilera

12.5% - 13%    French and Italian wines

13% – 14.5%   Southern French, Italian and Spanish wines

13% - 14.5%   New World still wines

14.5% - 15+%   South African Pinotage, Californian Zinfandel, Australian Shiraz, Argentinian Malbec, Italian Amarone

15% - 17%     Fino sherry; Vin doux Naturel (eg Muscat de Beaumes de Venise, Banyuls, Maury)

17% - 20%     Oloroso sherry; Liqueur Muscat; Madeira; Port


White: CUVEE L’ORANGERIE 2013 Philippe & Francois Tiollier
(£10.95 Yapp Brothers www.yapp.co.uk)

At 11% alcohol this crisp dry fresh white made from Savoie’s 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 gentle 12% alcohol makes this German Riesling an excellent dry lunchtime wine to match a summer salad.  Crisp mineral notes with limey undertones, made by Gerd Stepp from a blend of grapes from two regions: Mosel and Rheinpalz.

Join Rose’s Beginners wine classes in Edinburgh from £36 www.rosemurraybrown.com