Whatever way you slice it, knowing how much booze you're imbibing is highly valuable.

By Betty Gold
Updated: July 11, 2019

The degree of alcohol in any given glass of wine is equivalent to its percentage by volume, and is often referred to as ‘ABV’ (or alcohol by volume). Alcohol levels in wine are directly correlated with the amount of sugar that's developed in the grapes at harvest time: the higher the sugar levels, the higher the potential alcohol. This doesn't mean higher alcohol wines are sweeter, though sometimes this is the case. Rather, yeast consumes the sugar and converts it into alcohol during fermentation. The style (or varietal) of wine, the climate where the grapes were gown, and the winemaking/fermentation process are all key factors in determining both the sugar content of the grapes and the amount of alcohol in your bottle. 

The average glass of wine contains around 11% to 13% alcohol, but bottles range from as little as 5.5% alcohol by volume to as much as around 20% ABV. When tasting a wine, you'll notice alcohol comes through as heat in your back of your mouth or throat. A higher ABV wine will taste warmer and bolder; almost like a slight burning sensation on your palate. 

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According to experts, the alcohol content of wine has spiked considerably in recent years. “There’s pressure on winemakers from critics for intense flavors, and that means riper grapes,” explains Marnie Old, the former director of wine studies at the French Culinary Institute, in New York City, and a coauthor of He Said Beer, She Said Wine. “So during the past few years, winemakers have been leaving grapes on the vines well after they would typically be picked, and that translates into fuller-bodied wines and more alcohol.” Thanks to scientific advances in farming, it’s now less risky to postpone a harvest. Warmer climates also play a role, so a Riesling from California is going to be much more potent than a traditional one from a cooler climate, like Germany.

Whatever way you slice it, knowing how much booze you're imbibing is highly valuable. Here's a guide to those that are very low, moderately low, high, and very high. Cheers to whatever style suits you!  

Very Low (Under 12.5 Percent)

Sparkling: Italian Asti, Italian Prosecco.
White: French Vouvray and Muscadet, German Riesling, Portuguese Vinho Verde, Spanish Txacolina.
Rosé: California White Zinfandel, Portuguese rosés.

Moderately Low (12.5 to 13.5 Percent)

Sparkling: California sparkling wine, French Champagne, Spanish Cava.
White: Austrian Grüner Veltliner, Australian Riesling, French Alsace white, French Loire and Bordeaux whites, French white Burgundy, Italian Pinot Grigio, New York Riesling, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, Oregon Pinot Gris, South African Sauvignon Blanc, Spanish Albarino.
Rosé: French rosés, Spanish rosés.
Red: French Beaujolais and Burgundy, French Bordeaux, Italian Chianti, Spanish Rioja.

High (13.5 to 14.5 Percent)

White: Australian Chardonnay, California Chardonnay, California Pinot Gris, California Sauvignon Blanc, California Viognier, Chilean Chardonnay, French Sauternes, South African Chenin Blanc.
Red: Argentine Malbec, Australian Shiraz, California Cabernet Sauvignon, California Pinot Noir, California Syrah, Chilean Merlot, French Rhône red, Italian Barolo.

Very High (More Than 14.5 Percent)

White: French Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise (fortified), Portuguese Madeira (fortified), Spanish sherry (fortified).
Red: California Petite Sirah, California Zinfandel, Italian Amarone, Portuguese port (fortified).

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