Hello there! I'm Dr. Vinifera, or "Vinny" for short. Ask me your toughest wine questions, from the technical aspects of winemaking to the fine points of etiquette. I hope you find my answers educational and even amusing. Looking for a particular answer? Check my archive and my FAQs.
Dear Dr. Vinny,
If the term "table wine" refers to wines that are less than 14 percent alcohol only, then what is the term for all of the red wines that have been coming out lately with 15 or more percent alcohol? I Googled "wine labeling laws" for the U.S., and it seems like the only way to refer to wines with a higher alcohol content is "fortified wine," but obviously this isn't correct if the high alcohol content is natural.
—Kim, Buffalo, N.Y.
You're correct that the U.S. government categorizes wine based on its alcohol content by volume, but they do this to determine levels of taxation, not to make a statement about its style.
According to the Tax & Trade Bureau, "table wine" has no more than 14 percent alcohol. Wines above 14 percent are taxed at a much higher rate, and they are classified by the government as "dessert wine" or "fortified wine" even if the high alcohol is the result of natural fermentation. This categorization isn't based on what the wine tastes like, or even on how it's made; it simply refers to the wine's alcohol content for the purposes of tax assessment.
If you're not talking to an employee of the TTB or discussing tax rates (and I hope for your sake that you don't have to), "table wine" is an appropriate term for wine of any alcohol level that's not deliberately made in a dessert style.
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