Q: What's the maximum amount of alcohol a "table wine" can have?—John, Humboldt, Ill.
A: The first thing to note is that wine sold in the U.S. has an alcohol percentage by volume listed. Look carefully—it's usually in tiny print, or on the edge of the label, but it should be there. If it's not, and the label reads “red table wine” or “white table wine,” that means the wine is between 7 and 13.9 percent alcohol by volume.
Most wines will list the alcohol percentage. It's important to understand that even if a number is listed, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), the government body responsible for regulating wine labels, allows 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 must be within 1 percent of the actual percentage.
When a wine has more than 16 percent alcohol, the TTB classifies it as a "dessert" or “fortified” wine and taxes it at a higher rate. (Note that the "dessert" category used to include anything above 14 percent ABV.) But it's not unusual to see wines listed at up to 17 percent alcohol that, while technically classified as "dessert wines," are meant to be consumed as table wines.
Sometimes higher alcohol wines can taste "hot," where you feel the alcoholic burn and the wine is lacking in balance, but I've also had plenty of bold, lush reds that exhibit balance and complexity with high ABVs.