Hello there! I'm Dr. Vinifera, but you can call me Vinny. Ask me your toughest wine questions, from the fine points of etiquette to the science of winemaking. And don't worry, I'm no wine snob—you can also ask me those "dumb questions" you're too embarrased to ask your wine geek friends! I hope you find my answers educational, empowering and even amusing. And don't forget to check out my most asked questions and my full archives for all my Q&A classics.
Does red wine or white wine have more alcohol?
—Paula, Colorado Springs, Colo.
There are exceptions but, in general, red wines have more alcohol by volume (ABV) than white wines. Keep in mind that the alcohol is mostly (but not entirely) a result of the amount of sugar in the grapes when they were harvested. The riper the grapes, the higher the sugar content, and the more sugar there is for yeast to convert into alcohol during fermentation. Red wine grapes tend to be harvested later—and riper—than white wine grapes. In part it’s because of the physiology of various grapes, but also because broadly speaking, it reflects styles of red wines vs. white.
There are a lot of variables that go into the ripeness and thus alcohol content of wines—the grapes themselves (some are easier to ripen than others), the climate they are grown in and the weather conditions of that vintage. But the biggest variable is when the grapes are picked.
Winemakers aren’t just trying to get the grapes as ripe as possible; the goal is usually to achieve balance, even if for some winemakers that might be riper grapes than others. There’s been a movement around the wine world lately to tone down ripeness, and to find fresher expressions of wines that will pair better with food. If you’re curious about alcohol content, just look at the label—the law requires the ABV to be listed. (But also keep in mind that the number listed has a range of accuracy.)