The standard level of alcohol in a wine usually falls somewhere between 11.5-13%, depending on the grape, region, vintage and producer. Just as anywhere else, though, the wine industry sees trends come and go. A recent trend in winemaking is producing a higher-alcohol wine, particularly from California. Over the last two decades or so, the number of wines produced with an alcohol level higher than 14% (even up to 17%) has increased. Legally, anything over 14% alcohol is considered a “dessert wine,” and is taxed as such, but that’s not what these wines are. You can now easily find a California Zinfandel or even a Pinot Noir coming in at 15 or 16% alcohol.
Wine gets its alcohol from the grapes: the more a grape ripens, the more sugar is in the fruit – sugar that later ferments into alcohol. Some grape varieties have more sugar to begin with – like a Zinfandel vs. Pinot Noir, for example. Grapes are typically harvested at a specific time, to ensure optimal ripeness. The longer grapes are left on the vine, however, the more they ripen, increasing the sugar content. When grapes are grown outside of their normal growing climate, like Napa Valley vs. Germany or Alsace, they can also have a tendency to ripen more quickly.
Why the rise in boozy wine? Palate preferences, and critics’ ratings. Some have called it the “Parker effect,” as famed wine critic and writer Robert Parker has a demonstrated preference for bold, fruity wines, tending to be higher in sugar and alcohol. The more that wines are produced in warmer climates, too, the easier it is to produce a wine that’s higher in alcohol.
But as with any trend, there’s also a backlash. Some wine professionals think that wines with this much alcohol, outside the range that is “normal” or typical for that varietal, are too strong. Some sommeliers even refuse to consider a wine with an alcohol level above a certain percentage. As with anything, though, most of this is personal preference. As Lettie Teague concludes in a Wall Street Journal article when she found several of these bottles in her cellar, “they’re wines that I love and look forward to drinking soon.”
Don’t shy away from a wine just because it has 15% alcohol. It may pack a punch, but might just be something worth trying.