Why are there so many high alcohol wines?

Ask Dr Vinny

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.

Dear Dr. Vinny,

I prefer wines below 14 percent alcohol. Why are there so many higher alcohol wines?

—Jay, Austin, Texas

Dear Jay,

Alcohol percentages are a bit of a hot-button issue among wine lovers, and 14 percent alcohol by volume (ABV) is a line in the sand for many. For wine sold in the U.S., table wine is defined as between 7 and 13.9 percent ABV.

Printed alcohol percentages are a bit of a funny thing. The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (aka the TTB) allows for a tolerance of plus or minus 1.5 percent for table wines; for wine with more than 14 percent ABV, the number listed on the label has to be within 1 percent of the actual percentage.

When a wine has to be listed above 14 percent alcohol, it’s technically classified as a “dessert” wine and is taxed at a higher rate. Of course, as you point out, there are plenty of wines that are listed at 14 percent or higher that are meant to be considered table wines.

The “why” of it is more complicated. As grapes ripen, their sugar content rises. During the fermentation process, yeast convers that sugar into alcohol, so the riper the grape, the higher the potential alcohol. Some winemakers and consumers prefer that riper style of wine, and it was definitely fashionable for a while, especially in the early 2000s and into the 2010s.

I pay attention to alcohol percentages just as I would any other data point when it comes to wine, but I don't choose wines to drink based on their ABVs. For one, I know that the percentages listed are just an approximation, so it’s not like I would actually even know for sure what the ABV is. Second, I’ve had plenty of terrific, balanced and complex wines at 14 percent or higher, and I’ve had plenty of wines below that number that I didn’t care for.

Keep in mind as well that serving temperature directly influences how we perceive the taste and mouthfeel of alcohol. When wines are served too warm, it can cause the alcohol to become more prominent and taste “hot.” Conversely, serving wine too cold can cause the fruit flavors to seem muted. Check out our guide to wine serving temperatures for more details.

—Dr. Vinny

Ask Dr. Vinny alcohol-level health ripeness-levels

More In Dr. Vinny

Once chilled, must a wine stay chilled? Is it ruined if it warms up again?

Wine Spectator's expert Dr. Vinny debunks the myth that wine shouldn't be chilled and then …

Jun 27, 2022

Does Pinot Noir come in both red and white versions? Are they the same grape?

Wine Spectator's expert Dr. Vinny explains how red wines get their color. (Hint: It's not …

Jun 22, 2022

If you're supposed to hold a wineglass by the stem, why are stemless glasses so popular?

Wine Spectator's resident wine expert Dr. Vinny explains the pros and cons of stemless …

Jun 13, 2022

How much do our taste buds influence our perception of wine?

Wine Spectator's resident wine expert Dr. Vinny explains how taste sensitivity impacts our …

Jun 6, 2022

What's the shelf life of a box of wine?

Wine Spectator's resident wine expert, Dr. Vinny, explains why box wines aren't meant to …

May 31, 2022

Should I refill my own wineglass, or ask the host or server to?

Wine Spectator's expert Dr. Vinny explains the etiquette or wine service, for hosts and for …

May 23, 2022