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Alcohol, Alcohol Levels in Wine, and Low-Alcohol Wines

“Plenty of people, including a lot of consumers, aren’t happy about seeing numbers in the 14% to 16% range on their bottles.”
Erika Szymanski, PalatePress

It has been well documented that alcohol levels in wine have increased significantly over the past 10 to 20 years (“Too Much of a Good Thing? Causes and Consequences of Increases in Sugar Content of California Wine Grapes, Journal of Wine Economics, 6 (2), 2011). The sugar content of California wine grapes at harvest increased from 21.4 degrees Brix in 1980 to 21.8 degrees Brix in 1990, and 23.3 degrees Brix in 2008. This 9 percent increase in the average sugar content of harvested wine grapes translates into a 9 percent increase in the average alcohol content of wine.

A number of techniques are employed to reduce the final alcohol level in wine including picking grapes that are less-ripe, adding water, reverse osmosis (dominated by Vinovation), spinning cone columns (dominated by Conetech), use of less efficient yeasts, and the removal of alcohol during fermentation. A detailed review of alcohol reduction methods is offered in the online magazine wineries-put-out-their-fires/.

Harvey Steiman wrote an excellent article in the Wine Spectator (“Finding the Sweet Spot,” April 30, 2012) on the increasing ripeness and alcohol percentages of wines and how vintners have now tried to counter this trend. The false label claims study published by UC Davis in 2010 in the Journal of Wine Economists is cited in which it was found that there were substantial errors in alcohol percentages on labels with a tendency to understate alcohol content on wines over 14 percent alcohol and to overstate alcohol levels on wines under 14 percent alcohol. Steiman notes, “Winemakers are willing to err in the direction of providing consumers what they want. What remains to be resolved is why consumers choose to pay winemakers to lie to them.”

There is considerable buzz in the wine business and increasing consumer demand, at least in Australia, Europe and the UK, for lower alcohol and thus lower calorie wines. UK News (September 18, 2012) published an article titled, “Older drinkers raise glass to weaker wine.” The report stated that lower alcohol wine popularity was soaring with people over 55 years of age and lunchtime drinkers. Wine producer First Cape surveyed 850 customers and found that 20% of drinkers 55 years of age or older preferred wines with an alcohol content of no more than 5.5%. A number of organizations and government bodies in the UK have pushed for weaker alcoholic drinks to stem the alarming increase in binge drinking problems in that country.

A 2012 Insight Report from International Wine & Spirit Research (IWSR) found that the interest in low-alcohol wines was primarily due to increased taxes in some countries on wine,and lesser reasons including health concerns primarily by women. The report notes that Accolade Wines, Brand Phoenix, E. & J. Gallo, and Percy Fox are investing in wine programs with very low alcohol levels (5.5% or below). Wines with such a low alcohol level are not by definition wines and thus are not subject to the same taxes. The report notes some rising interest in the United States as well where considerable emphasis is placed on women’s weight and health.

ProWein, the German wine trade fair, commissioned Wine Intelligence to canvas 1000 regular wine drinkers in the United States, China, Germany and the UK. The report found a preference for lower alcohol wines in a significant percentage of those canvased, primarily younger generations most notably in China. In the United States, 22% said their ideal wine would be 10.5% alcohol, similar to the findings in Britain and Germany.

The biggest challenge for producers of lower alcohol wines is making the wines as palatable as normal premium wines. Charles Olken, the respected editor of Connoisseurs’ Guide to California Wine, has no love for the new lower alcohol wines. In an editorial published February 22, 2012, Olken says, “The newfound lust for low alcohol wines is about to destroy the wine business as we know it....So, until the world invents a better grape or a useful yeast that ferments great wines at less than the normal conversion ratios or technology that will reduce the alcohol without changing body, flavor, or balance, we are stuck with that great bugaboo we call moderation. Perhaps we can get back to drinking great wine in whatever amounts our bodies and the law will allow.”

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