It’ll Get You Drunk!

The timeless words of Dave Chappelle’s “Sam Jackson” seemed so right for this post. Unfortunately though, it’s not quite a simple as that hilarious skit. I’m going to drop some knowledge on you today, but don’t be scared. You’ll be fully warned before we get to the big stuff.

Everyone has seen the alcohol content on their wine bottle before. Usually labeled ABV…alcohol by volume. Most of us, except for the real wine nerds, pass this by thinking that wine is pretty much all the same. Pop quiz: guess what the alcohol level in a typical wine is?

Did you guess around 12% (ish) ? Then you’d be close, but actually a little low. Take a closer look when you purchase from now on. The low end these days seems to be 12.5%, but closer to 13.5% much of the time. You’ll see more fluctuation than you might think, especially with red wine. Many bottles these days can go all the way up to 15-16% – territory of drinks like Port. And if you really want to get technical, the ABV level can swing even more than that.

The following gets pretty heavy, so keep reading if you really want to get blasted with some knowledge. If not, I’d say just start paying attention to the alcohol levels when you buy a bottle. You might learn a thing or two about what you like and don’t like. Or better yet, when you buy your next few wines, ignore the alcohol completely. After you’ve tried some different ones, go back to see what ABV they were and how you really felt about them. Don’t let the label get in the way of your tongue.

WARNING: Wine Nerd Content!

But, as with anything, there’s a bit of a catch. The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB…don’t ask me where the other letters went to) has rules for these things*. Pinning down exactly what level of alcohol is in a wine is tricky stuff – individual bottle variations and so forth – so wine makers are allowed some leeway. Here’s what is allowed:

Any wine labeled 14% OR LESS ABV is allowed a tolerance of 1.5% up or down.

Any wine labeled OVER 14% are allowed a tolerance of 1.0% up or down.

Wine makers, of course, don’t want their wines to be labeled with high alcohols because, as I’ve been led to believe, they are taxed at higher rates**. Also, higher alcohol is generally perceived by consumers as “bad.” Therefore, they will label their wine’s alcohol as low as they possibly can get away with, shy of getting fined. So what does this mean? You could buy a wine labeled “14% ABV” which could really be as high as 15.5% ABV (or as low as 12.5%, but I doubt it). Wines labeled 14.5% could be (and quite possibly are) closer to 15.5%!

This brings about the long-time debate over high alcohol in wines. The immediate reaction of most is that it’s no good. High alcohol makes the wine “hot.” Ruins the wine. Too strong. From my experiences, I’m not convinced. Wine making technology and know-how has become so good in the past few decades that I feel this is less of an issue.

Balance is the key. Wines are able to be made with far better balance of all elements now due to improved technologies and wine maker knowledge. High alcohol in a wine really can be a benefit to some bottles, helping to balance out other traits that would otherwise overwhelm the palate. If a wine is indeed out of balance, then high alcohol can really come in to play, making the wine taste “hot.” But again, I chalk that up to lack of balance due to poor wine making, not alcohol.

As an example, you may recall a post of mine from some time ago about the R Wines’ Shiraz, “F U” that I tasted. This wine was 16.3% ABV. And we’re talking about a bottle that could have actually been 17.3% when you add in the leeway they’re given. I was legitimately concerned about this before trying it, but after a taste, I forgot all about the alcohol. In fact, it was probably one of the best wines I’ve ever tasted. Each characteristic was so well in balance that the level of alcohol didn’t even come in to play.

Ok. You’re safe. End Wine Nerd Content. But it’s good food for thought. With a new understanding, I hope it helps you discover wines you like even more.

*TTB Alcohol Regulations Reference may be found here.

**I would have to confirm this of course, but I have heard this from multiple sources within the industry and in my readings.

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