Does Alcohol Content In Wine Make A Difference?

As a writer for Mollie Stone’s wine pages and a lover of wine, I tend to  drink and taste a lot of wine. Although I do a great deal of tasting, I’m a lightweight when it comes to drinking more than one and a half glasses. On a recent trip to Italy, we drank more wine than usual – sometimes tasting more than four different bottles per day – yet I noticed a remarkable reduction in the effect the alcohol had on me. So, I did some research on the possible reasons why.

It turns out that many European wines have a lower alcohol content than the wines I’m used to drinking in California. Alcohol is best described as that warmth or sting you feel when you drink. Some wines with low alcohol, like an Italian Prosecco, leaves little or no sting but tingles from the bubbles when you taste it. Other wines, like a Lodi Zinfandel, are the opposite, where you can almost smell the alcohol before you sip it. You may feel the sensation in your throat, while others might smell it in the nose. 

Here is a categorization of alcohol content levels with examples of wines in that category:

LOW (below 12.5%): Prosecco, French Vouvray, German Riesling

MODERATE (12.5-13.5%): French Champagne, Spanish Cava, Italian Pinot Grigio, New Zealand Sav Blanc, Oregon Pinot Gris, many California Reds and Whites

HIGHER (13.5-14.5%): Most Italian Reds, Chardonnay, California Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlots, French Rhone

HIGHEST (14.5%+): California Zinfandels*, West Coast blends from warmer regions such as Paso Robles and Walla Walla

*While many California Zinfandels are over 14.5% alc, this is not always the case and lower alcohol Zins can be found as well. Get acquainted with the bottles and find the alc % which is usually in very small print on the front label, and in some cases on the back.

Intense flavors that usually include higher alcohol called “fruit bombs” are becoming increasingly popular in the United States. Leaving grapes on the vines for extended “hang time” translates to these fuller-bodied, higher alcohol wines. Body is how thick wine feels in your mouth and is usually described as light, medium or full. Generally, the more alcohol or sugar a wine has, the fuller-bodied it will be. Cooler climate wines tend to be lighter-bodied with less alcohol content, because grapes from those regions don’t get as ripe and therefore have less sugar to convert to alcohol. Warmer climate wines tend to be fuller-bodied with more alc content due to longer ripening periods.

It is interesting to note that most of the calories in wine come from the alcohol; the lower the alcohol content, the fewer the calories. Also, the alcohol content in wine translates to be similar to proof of a liquor by doubling the wine’s alcohol content (15% alcohol = 30 proof).


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