This is a good question, and something that we should learn to be aware of, especially if we are doing a lot of wine tasting (which I hope you are!). The alcohol content of wine is a very complex subject, and the content in the wine itself will vary depending on the type of wine, aging, whether the wine contains sulfites, laws, and many other factors. Let’s really dig in and understand how sugar in wine ferments to become alcohol, and the various levels of alcohol we will encounter as we learn more about Tuscan wines!
First, it is good to note that over time alcohol content in wine has gone up considerably. Wine producers are constantly grappling to hit that sweet spot that will appeal to consumers and allow people to get a good buzz on without breaking the bank. To achieve that effect, winemakers have been letting grapes ripen on the vine longer so that sugar content, and subsequently alcohol content, goes up. Warmer climates have also contributed to the higher sugar content. Many wines from California for example are sweeter in general due to drought and climate change factors.
Wine alcohol content covers a range, beginning at the very low end of spectrum and ending with sweet, dense wines like port or brandy. First though, what does sugar have to do with alcohol content? A lot! Basically, grapes contain sugar and yeast, and during the fermentation stage of the winemaking process, those (usually) naturally occurring yeasts (sometimes winemakers add yeast to make up for certain biochemical factors in the grapes) transform the sugars present in the juice into ethanol (alcohol) and carbon dioxide as a byproduct. Winemakers are really engaging in serious chemical reactions! The temperature of the wine as well as the levels of oxygen present in the grape’s skin (must) are critical to getting the reactions right. Normally, the fermentation stage of winemaking takes place in steel tanks, but in can also take place inside a wine barrel (more traditional with red wines) or even inside the bottle as in the production of some sweeter, sparkling wines.
The wines traditionally associated with a low alcohol content are the sparkling wines such as spumante d’Asti, or prosecco, Riesling, Portuguese vinho verde, the Spanish txacolina, and many rose wines, including Lambrusco. These wines range anywhere from 6% to 12% alcohol by volume. They are light and easy to drink, in Italy are sometimes even served to children at parties! Many Tuscan table wines also fall into this category, including red table wine that you might order at lunch or dinner in a traditional trattoria. Traditionally, older people even add water to their wine at meals to get the taste of a nice glass of vino without the high levels of alcohol.
The next level would be the wines with moderately low alcohol content. These tend to range from 12.5% to 13.5%. Some sparkling wines in this category would be California sparkling wine, French champagne, and Spanish cava. Some of the whites include a Pinot Grigio or a Sauvignon Blanc, or even a Spanish Albarino. Here we also get to more of the red wines. The Italian reds with a moderate alcohol content include most Chiantis, Barbera, and a majority of the moderately priced wines you would see in a normal Italian supermarket.
Next come the wines with a high level of alcohol content, meaning their alcohol ranges from 13.5% to 14.5%. For the white wines with a high alcohol content, we’re looking at a lot of California produced wines, including chardonnay, pinot gris, or sauvignon blanc. We might also see a high alcohol content in a French Sauternes or a South African Chenin Blanc. These wines are generally produced with an American audience in mind, especially the California wines, so they cater to the American palate that likes a higher alcohol content in general. For the reds we might see some of the more sophisticated Italian wines like a Chianti Classico, Rosso di Montalcino, Nobile di Montepulciano, etc. A lot of the higher priced wines, or some of the aged wines would fall into this range.
Finally, we get to the high-hitting very high alcohol content wines. These are wines with an alcohol content by volume of 14.5% or more. An Italian Amarone would usually fall into this category – these are wines to be opened and let breathe, and then enjoyed slowly with a nice steak! They are best either to accompany a hearty meal, or even served after a meal as a digestif. Portuguese Madeira or Port, or Spanish Sherry fall into this category, and are generally served as a desert. Again, as we mentioned, wine alcohol content has been going up, so in Tuscany we tend to find a lot more Brunellos or Montalcinos that fall into this category as well. According to Wine Enthusiast magazine, “Although 14% and 14.5% abvs were the norm just a few short years ago, more Brunellos now claim 15% (a few even 15.5%) on their labels.” The same can be said of some Barolos.
So, now do you want a light aperitif? Some table wine with lunch? Or are you going all in for a hearty Amarone and a nap this afternoon? Either way, be sure to check your label and notice the wine maker’s alcohol by volume. Remember too that, especially in Tuscany, the alcohol by volume tends to be underestimated