Why are there so many high alcohol wines?

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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

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