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Alcohol degrees – How important is the alcohol degree on wine labels?

Alcohol degrees – How important is the alcohol degree on wine labels?

It’s very important. The alcohol degree is one of the key things I always look at on the label. When I was 19 my motives were different from today, and naturally back then I was looking for a low alcohol wine so I could still do my homework.

But today I look at the alcohol degree because it can tell you so much about what a wine will taste like. The more sugar there is in the grape at harvest, the higher the potential alcohol. So if the grape comes from a hot climate it will typically have become very ripe, and contain a large amount of sugar that can be turned into a lot of alcohol.

Conversely, if a grape was grown in a cool climate, or comes from a cooler vintage, then the amount of sugar will be much lower and the alcohol degree in the wine will be less.

So how does that change the taste of wine? A Chardonnay from a cool area, such as Chablis, will have less alcohol, less body, greener fruit flavors, and crisper acidity. Don’t forget that in the grape ripening process acidity comes down as sugar content builds.    

If you have a Chardonnay from a hotter climate, which will result in higher alcohol, there will be riper flavors in the wine. Also, there will typically be more body and a degree of sweetness, however subtle that may be. The high alcohol wine will also have a certain warmth on the palate, noted by the heat on your breath.

So if I see on the label that the alcohol degree is low to moderate (generally 12-13%) then I have an idea of the level of body, ripeness, sweetness, and acidity in the wine. If I see it is 14% or more then it should be a full bodied wine with riper flavors, some warmth from the alcohol and a touch of fruit sweetness.

Unfortunately you can’t try wine before you buy it. So you have to use everything you can on the label to get a general idea of how it might taste.

And yes, in my opinion, alcohol degrees are generally way too high for many red wines these days. Drinking a 15% + red is just too intoxicating and often there is a burn on the finish. I’m not a big fan. Moderation, my dear.

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