Wine Alcohol Content From Light to Strong

by JJ Buckley Fine Wines

Pouring red wine into a glass at an outdoor table

You want to add a bottle or two to your wine collection, but this time you’re interested in something new — a varietal or brand you haven't tried before. When you've never tried a particular kind of wine before, you might not know what to expect from its alcohol content. Here's a quick guide.

Understanding Wine Alcohol Content

Grapes growing on the vine don’t contain natural sugars throughout their entire lifecycle. Unripe grapes are green, regardless of whether the eventual wine will be red or white. Once the grapes reach the veraison stage, they begin ripening. In this stage, the vine puts its focus into accumulating sugars within the grapes and increasing their size.

Chlorophyll breaks down, allowing other compounds to form a protective barrier for the grape. For red grapes, these are anthocyanins and polyphenols; for white grapes, carotenoids. These compounds also turn the red cultivars from green to red, and the white cultivars from green to translucent.

Once winemakers determine that the grapes have reached optimal ripening, they start the harvest. Grapes undergo fermentation, in which yeast converts their sugar to alcohol. The process either stops naturally when all of the sugar is gone, or through winemaker intervention, once the grape juice has reached the desired alcohol level.

Changes in Alcohol Content

These days, many wines have higher alcohol content than they used to. In the 1980s, most wines ranged between 9 to 14 percent alcohol by volume (ABV). This range was even lower in the 1940s and 1950s, with the average alcohol content ranging between 9 and 13 percent ABV. What was responsible for the change?

Back then, yeasts couldn’t survive once the alcohol levels in the grapes reached 13.5 percent; it became too toxic for them. Researchers have improved yeasts strains over the years, and now yeast can survive up to about 16.5 percent ABV.

Additionally, global carbon dioxide (CO2) levels have been on the rise over the past few decades. Research has shown that rising CO2 levels cause grapes to accumulate more sugars – often at the expense of other nutrients! More natural sugars, plus earlier ripening in some regions, has caused more sugar to be available for yeast to turn into alcohol.

Before we list wines according to their alcohol content, bear in mind that a standard serving of 5 ounces is expected to have about 12 percent ABV. If you’re enjoying a wine with a higher ABV, "one serving" will be smaller.

Now, how much alcohol do different kinds of wine really have? Where do your favorite wines and soon-to-be favorites fit in?

Low Alcohol Wines

5.5 to 10 Percent ABV

  • Moscato d’Asti
  • German Kabinett, Auslese or Spatlese Riesling
  • Txakoli

Wines in this category are typically sweet due to the residual sugars that remain after fermentation. Of course, not all low alcohol wines are sweet. Some wines, like Kabinett Riesling and Txakoli, are lower in both sugar and alcohol because the grapes aren’t overly sweet to begin with.

Medium-Low Alcohol Wines

10.5 to 11.5 Percent ABV

  • Muscadet
  • Vinho Verde
  • Moscofilera
  • Lambrusco
  • Gruner Veltliner
  • German Trocken Riesling
  • Loire Valley Sauvignon Blanc
  • Austrian Riesling
  • Australian Riesling

Most wines in this category are considered off-dry, since they have some residual sugars. They also come from cooler climates throughout Europe, in particular the cooler regions of France, Germany and Northern Italy.

Medium Alcohol Wines

12 to 13.5 Percent ABV

  • Beaujolais
  • French Champagne
  • Cava
  • Prosecco
  • Washington and Oregon Riesling
  • Oregon Pinot Noir
  • Red and white Burgundy
  • Red and white Bordeaux
  • Chianti
  • Rioja
  • New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc
  • Albarino
  • Pinot Grigio
  • White Zinfandel

Most of these wines come from the moderately cool regions of Europe and the Pacific Northwest. If you love Old World wines, you can expect most of them to have medium alcohol levels.

Medium-High Alcohol Wines

13.5 to 14.5 Percent ABV

  • California Syrah
  • California and French Viognier
  • California Pinot Gris
  • Malbec
  • California Sauvignon Blanc
  • Barolo
  • Sauternes
  • California Pinot Noir
  • Chenin Blanc
  • Grenache
  • California Chardonnay
  • Muscat
  • California Cabernet Sauvignon
  • California Merlot
  • Petite Sirah

Wines with medium-high alcohol levels typically come from warmer climates, like those of California, Argentina, South Africa and southern Europe. The climate helps draw out more sugars, which leads to a higher ABV.

High Alcohol Wines

15 Percent ABV and Higher

  • Madeira
  • Port
  • Sherry
  • Amarone
  • Zinfandel
  • Australian Shiraz

This category with the highest alcohol content comprises mainly fortified wines. It also includes big, bold wines from hot climates.

Knowing What’s on the Label

Did you know that the ABV on the label might not reflect what the wine actually contains? It’s true! U.S. wine laws give winemakers a 1.5 percent leeway with their labeling. What that means is that the wine's ABV could be 1.5 percent more or less than the amount on the label. EU regulations give a 0.5 percent leeway to winemakers.

Picking the Right Bottle

How do you know which ABV level to pick? Sometimes your choice comes down to how your body reacts to alcohol. If you love a glass of wine in the evenings but find that it usually hits you pretty hard, you may be better off with the low to medium-low alcohol wines. If you prefer small sips but you like big flavors, you’re probably looking at the medium to medium-high alcohol wines.

Love full-bodied, velvety wines? Look for ones with an ABV of 13 percent or more. If you lean toward crisp wines with a certain zippiness, you’ll enjoy those with an ABV of 12 percent or less.

Most dinner parties feature wines with an ABV of 13 to 14.5, while business events are better suited by wines with an ABV between 11 and 13. Your glass of wine at your Sunday brunch with your friends should be even lower; think medium-low alcohol wines with an ABV between 10 and 11.5.

Red Wine vs. White Wine

Typically, red wine's alcohol content is higher than that of white wine. This is due to the time at which winemakers harvest the grapes – later in the season – along with the climate and the length of fermentation. Most red wines ferment until the yeast runs out of sugar, which makes them dry wines.

White wines have more flexibility, and can range from dry to sweet. The drier the wine, the higher the ABV it will have. And remember that white wines often come from cooler climates, which means their growing season is shorter and likely doesn't allow a lot of natural sugars to develop.

The next time you’re looking for an exciting new bottle of wine, consider where you’ll enjoy it and what ABV you prefer. You shouldn’t hesitate to head out of your comfort zone. Sometimes, the best wine discoveries happen by chance! For more recommendations and personalized wine consultation services, reach out to us at JJ Buckley Fine Wines.