Let’s just get one thing straight. 2020 was a hard year. To say it was tough is no understatement – the endless lockdowns, the social distancing, the loss of loved ones … 2021 dawned hopeful and then plummeted towards the end of the year. And, as if that wasn’t bad enough, we found ourselves at the cusp of a new year and still living in the shadow of Covid-19.
With bars and restaurants being closed for much of the year, the joy of drinking a lovely glass of fine wine with a meal was almost non-existent. So many people turned to entertaining at home. This was great for many reasons – for the price of a restaurant bottle of wine, we could afford to really go to town on a very good bottle to drink at home. But it also meant that we were less aware of what we were drinking, and sometimes pushed the boat out a bit too far.
With 2022 looming and looking as unclear as 2021 and all of us having to live with the “new normal” we thought it was time to give a short 101 on the alcohol content in wine. Because no one wants a sore head come the 1st of January. Let’s raise a glass and toast to a healthier future, with some excellent wine to drink in it.
What Is ABV (Alcohol by Volume)?
Let’s start with an easy one. The ABV that you see on any alcoholic drink stands for Alcohol by Volume. This can range from around 40% for most spirits (although some brands are much higher) to around 5% for beer. However, the amount of alcohol in wine can vary. Wine usually comes in at an average of 11.6% but can be as high as 25% in the case of fortified wines. The range of ABV for unfortified wine is about 5.5% to 16%, while fortified wines range from 15.5% to 25% ABV, with an average of 18%. The ABV tells you what percentage of the wine is alcohol. The higher the ABV, the more alcohol is in the drink and the stronger it is – for example, a 13% ABV wine contains 13% pure alcohol. Remember to always drink responsibly.
How Is Alcohol Content Reflected in the Taste of Wine?
Whether we’re talking about red wine or white wine, sparkling wine or plain old still wine, the alcohol content of wine is directly proportional to how much sugar is in the grapes. The more sugar there is, the greater potential there is for alcohol during fermentation.
Regrettably, we have all suffered the effects of alcohol content in wine. I don’t think I’m the only one who has been a little worse for wear after imbibing a bit too much. But wine’s alcohol content is not just there to make you merry.
Without alcohol, wine would just be simple grape juice. Alcohol also plays an underappreciated role in the structure of wines, and understanding alcohol content can help you understand more about how a given wine was made and where it came from. It can also help you understand how well the wine will age and the projected gain in quality (ergo, value for investors).
Flavour: Wine’s structure is defined by four cornerstones. These are alcohol, acid, sugar and tanin. The harmony that comes from a really good bottle of wine is when all these elements are balanced. For example: a highly tannic wine is higher in alcohol; as these wines are built for ageing, the tannin, and consequently the alcohol are higher. Just think of those big, beautiful age worthy Bordeauxs and Burgundies you will get the idea. Inversely, too much alcohol in low tannin wine and unbalanced levels of acidity, and sugar will taste unpleasantly “hot,” probably something like a higher alcohol spirit.
Body: As alcohol is more viscous and thicker than water; usually the higher the alcohol content of the wine, the fuller the body. I again go back to the big, beautiful wines mentioned above. Lower alcohol wines are lighter and have a more delicate mouthfeel and palate taste.
Taste: This is probably the hardest to discern. Taste is a matter of personal perception, and what may taste good to me might not to you. Defining factors for taste can even be as delicate as a person’s genes casting the deciding vote. Alcohol, in combination with esters and acids, help release and enhance flavours, especially fruity aromas. It acts as a wrapper and catalyser of the aromas condensed in the glass. Thus, around 75% of people will find the taste of alcohol bitter, while around 25% will find the same drink sweet.
Finally on this subject, an important part of appreciating a wine is knowing how to correctly taste it – as we outline in our superb piece on the subject here. Being able to properly taste, and therefore evaluate, a wine gives you a deep understanding of it and turns you from enthusiast to connoisseur in a single sip. And not only – knowing how to properly taste wine means you can explore wine investment, and begin building a solid portfolio of investment worthy wine.
Lightest Types of Wine
When talking about ABV in wines, we can break it down into three categories. As the types of wine and ABV usually go hand in hand, the categories are the same: light, medium (or moderate) and full (or strong).
Light or low-alcohol wines are usually those under 12.5% ABV. These are a great option if you want to limit your alcohol intake, and are versatile, year round favourites. Low(er) alcohol does not however mean lower taste, nor quality. Some of our best-loved investable wines are low ABV but high on ROI. What’s more, the beauty of low ABV wine is that they are perfect for any occasion. So, basically, how low can you go?
We recommend the following if you want to lay low. None of these are investment worthy (bar perhaps some great Rieslings from Egon Muller) but if you want something that complements your evening meal and won’t give you a hangover then why not consider one of these:
- Gamay: Famous as the red-wine grape of Beaujolais, in eastern France. ABV of 10.5% — 12.5%
- Muscadet: Under French AOC regulations, the maximum alcohol content of a Muscadet must be no more than 12%. This makes it the only unfortified French wine to have a maximum alcohol content stipulation.
- German Riesling: In general, German Riesling comes in at about 12% ABV due to its cooler climate, which is in line with the standard serving of wine per U.S. guidelines.. American Riesling can be significantly higher.
- Asti: Made from the magical Moscato grape and grown in Tuscany, Asti is sweet and naturally low in alcohol, with an ABV of around 5.5%
- Brachetto d’Acqui: Italian DOCG rules specify that Brachetto d’Acqui should exceed a minimum of 5% alcohol by volume; so 6-7% abv is typical. This wine is not meant for ageing and should be drunk as young as possible.
- Prosecco: Italy’s answer to Champagne, hailing from the Veneto region in the country’s north east. Prosecco has a minimum 10.5–11.5% ABV.
Moderate Types of Wine
This category is where most wines fall. Moderate or medium being considered as anywhere between 12.5%-14% ABV. Here are some top options to consider:
- Chardonnay: France’s favourite blanc. The dry, medium- to full-bodied wine with moderate acidity and an ABV of between 12.5 and 14% alcohol. Can be higher if from warmer climate countries.
- Pinot Noir: When grown in cooler regions such as France and Germany Pinot Noir usually averages 12–13.5% ABV. Pinot Noir from California and Australia can reach up to 15%.
- Champagne: Champagne alcohol content varies but most have an ABV of around 12.5%. Now that’s something to celebrate!
- Beaujolais: Thanks to its tangy nose and very fruity, raspberry-scented palate, this is an exceptionally easy drinking wine with only 12.5% abv. Great served a little chilled.
- Bordeaux: This region can be found in the next category as well, due to the sheer spectrum of variety that it produces. Typically, Bordeaux wines are between 12.5-14% ABV but some can reach as low as 11%, while others, particularly fine wines that are made for ageing and investing, can go as high as 15%.
- Bourgogne: Bourgogne or Burgundies are moderate in ABV, including the big names (Domaine Romanee Conti for example is a solid 13% ABV).
- Malbec: Malbecs verge on the high side of average, usually in the 13-14% ABV range.
- Merlot: The abv of Merlot depends on where it’s grown. Merlot from cooler regions like France often has 13–14% alcohol by volume (abv), but can be slightly higher if produced in new world countries such as California, Chile and Australia.
- Pinot Noir: Originally hailing from the area around Dijon, Pinot Noir is fast becoming France’s favourite medium-bodied wine. Average ABV is an easy going 13%.
Strongest Types of Wine
High Alcohol wines are considered those that have an ABV of 14.5% or higher. You’ll see that all the examples below come from warmer climates, aka New World wines. These countries have plenty of sugar making sunshine, which gives the grapes a far higher alcoholic potential. Additionally, some of these countries have a culture of making fortified wines (wines boosted with distilled spirit) which ups the ABV even further.
- Australian Cabernet Sauvignon: Can be lower than 14.5% but is usually on the high side. Cabernet Sauvignon is the world’s most planted winegrape variety and it is the third most popular variety in Australia, behind Shiraz and Chardonnay.
- Australian Shiraz: Australian Shiraz can be as high as 16% alcohol. Stylistically, it can be round and fruity, or dense and tannic.
- California Cabernet Sauvignon: Cabernet Sauvignons, especially those from places such as California, Australia and Chile, often have an ABV 14.5%, sometimes even going over 15%. This is typified by its dark, intense colour.
- Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon: see above
- Fortified wines (Sicilian Marsala, Spanish Sherry, Portuguese Madeira, French Muscat)
- Merlot from Australia, California, or Chile: Merlot from cooler regions like France often have 13–14% alcohol by volume (abv), but can approach 14.5% when it is grown in a warmer climate such as California, Chile and Australia.
Food Pairings by Wine Alcohol Content
Here at Vindome we love to drink our wine almost as much as we love to store it away, so now comes the all important bit. What to eat with our low, medium and high ABV red and white wines.
- Low-ABV Wine Pairings: These are year round favourites and some of the most versatile wines on the market. We light to drink these with lighter meal options: salads, seafood, and vegetables based dishes. Great with soft cheeses, although steer clear of any food that big on taste.
- Medium-ABV Wine Pairings: Considered as the most food friendly of all the wines, these pair well with almost everything, from winter salads to more complex foods such as meaty fish, roasted chicken, or pasta.
- High-ABV Wine Pairings: Full bodied white wines are the hedonist’s choice. Rich, smooth and buttery, these are wines that pair well with rich, fatty foods – think foie gras, creamy pasta and lobster. Beef and other rich meats, like duck, love high ABV wines.
Now that you know more about the alcohol content in wine, check out these wine tasting terms!