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Dear Dr. Vinny,
If I were to investigate the changes in alcohol content in white wine when exposed to different temperatures, and the trend was that I got a decrease in alcohol content as the temperature increased, what is the reason for that? Why do I get these results?
—Ashera, New Zealand
Short of freezing or boiling it, a wine’s alcohol content doesn’t vary based on its temperature. That said, how the alcohol is perceived on the palate absolutely changes with the serving temperature.
The alcohol content of a wine is determined during fermentation, when the sugar in the grapes is converted to alcohol. Once the wine is bottled, the alcohol content doesn’t change (even as it gets older, which is a question I get asked now and again). Of course, when a bottle is opened and the wine is exposed to air, there might be some evaporation that could affect the alcohol percentage by volume, but it’s pretty negligible. If you want to noticeably change the alcohol content of a wine, you’d need to pour it in a pan and heat it on the stove. That’s a pretty good start to a wine reduction sauce, which should be in most chefs’ bag of tricks.
Even though the alcohol content will remain basically unchanged, as I mentioned, the temperature at which you serve the wine will definitely affect how it comes across. Serve a wine too cold, and it will be subdued and inexpressive. Serve it too warm, and the alcohol will start to stick out more. As one of my friends describes it, a too-warm wine will come across as “burny” from the alcohol. You might be interested in some guidelines to serving wine at a temperature that’s “just right.”
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