India's First Wine, Food and Hospitality Website, INDIAN WINE ACADEMY, Specialists in Food & Wine Programmes. Food Importers in Ten Cities Across India. Publishers of delWine, India’s First Wine.
Skip Navigation Links
About Us
Indian Market
Wine & Health
Wine Events
Retail News
Contact Us
Skip Navigation Links
Wine Tourism
Book Review
Photo Gallery
Readers' Comments
Video Wall
Media Partners
Ask Wineguyindia
Wine & Food
Wine Guru
Gerry Dawes
Harvest Reports
Mumbai Reports
Advertise With Us
US Report on Indian Market Released
Top Ten Importers List 2015-16
On Facebook
On Twitter
Delhi Wine Club

Posted: Tuesday, 27 April 2010 12:00

Viewpoint: Taming High Alcohol in Wine

The alcohol content of unfortified wines is increasing worldwide. Some experts suggest winemakers now need to seriously consider limiting or reducing the levels in wine, raising the question of how to achieve moderate alcohol levels, writes Rajiv Seth.

Robert Parker publisher of The Wine Advocate, wrote about big,  plummy high-alcohol red wines with “gobs of fruit,” encouraging California winemakers to go for higher and higher alcohol levels. Some labels now list 17 percent, which may actually be a degree or higher in the bottle -- closer to Port than wine.

In fact, the federal US Laws only labels wines between 7 percent and 14 percent alcohol as “table wine.” Above that, even if the level of alcohol is reached naturally, they are categorized as “fortified” and, with some leeway, are taxed at a rate four times higher.

While higher alcohol rates do occur naturally in warmer climates, winemakers can boost the level by letting the grapes hang longer to achieve phenolic ripeness and build up sugars that ferment into alcohol. The result is wines with a richer, slightly sweeter flavor that do well in competitions, where deep color and big aromas count.

American wine writer Gerry Dawes said in an interview “If you want to get drunk, booze is cheaper and quicker than wine,” High alcohol destroys the balance, wine should have. You need acid, not high alcohol, to go with food. After a single glass these wines are tiresome to drink and people will leave a very expensive bottle half-empty on the table because they can’t finish it.

The trend toward high alcohol wines is generally blamed on Robert Parker. Considered the most influential wine writer, he developed the industry standard 100-point system for evaluating wine. Since Robert Parker tends to reward high alcohol wines, especially red wines, with high scores, winemakers responded by making wines with higher alcohol content and now more and more restaurants are adding these wines to their wine lists.

Most people don't know that the alcohol content of wines can have a huge impact on their wine cellar. Unfortunately, bottles of wine with an alcohol content of more than 15% won't last in storage. The acid in these wines, which is the single most important element contributing to the longevity of a wine, simply won't last.

In US, rising alcohol levels have appeared despite winemaker efforts to keep them low. The dirty little secret of California wine is that a great deal of it goes through some form of de-alcoholization, where at least part of each vintage has alcohol removed to bring down the overall level.

Another approach is to “just add water” to the fermenting must to literally water down the potential alcohol. California vintner calls this secret technique “adding Jesus units” because water is turned into wine instantly, and it is a common practice, if not one that anybody admits using.

All this leads to one question- are winemakers feeling pressured to make high-alcohol wines because those are the wines which get high ratings on 100-point scales, then why would these winemakers find themselves forced to de-alcoholize wines or even simply dilute?

South African wine writer Michael Fridjhon once commented “we all want our wines to deliver on taste, and we all wish to avoid the kick of the mule”

Experts point out that a good wine ought to be between 11 and 12% of alcohol. Below this the wine runs the risk of being weak and small, unless it is particularly rich in aroma. Above that it is hot and too heady, its higher alcoholic content making it difficult to drink in reasonable quantities.

Paul Pontallier of Château Margaux stated that wines from all over the world now have excess alcohol, “because of warmer climates, but also because of late harvesting, greater leaf clearing and other viticultural practices commonly used now days.”

Reasons for moderate alcohol

It can be argued that moderate alcohol is desirable in wines. Some of these reasons relate to health, legal limits on alcohol, food with which alcohol is paired, and stylistic aims of the wine producer.

Several interventions are possible during the winemaking process, after the grapes have been harvested.  The most significant determinant of final alcohol level is the amount of sugars in the must. However, it is still possible to significantly tweak the final alcohol levels in the winery. In the case of de alcoholisation treatments, it is possible to achieve any desired level of reduction of alcohol, but even less drastic interventions can have significant influence.

Some processes are outside the regulations and laws governing winemaking, depending on the jurisdiction. These include watering, using excess water in processing, and various types of reverse osmosis. Two main interventions exist for direct manipulation of the alcohol level in the winery. Sugar can be removed from the must prior to fermentation, or alcohol can be removed after fermentation is complete.

Water addition is illegal in many jurisdictions around the world, specifically in South Africa, the EU, Australia and New Zealand. In contrast, water addition is allowed in the USA. Even the more restrictive state legislation in California has been reinterpreted to allow water addition. It has been suggested that winemakers are routinely instructing grape growers in California to leave grapes on the vine to dehydrate and adding water in the winery to compensate, a process sometimes known as “humidification” or “breaking back” (Robinson 2003). In 2005 Andrew wrote that “much of the wine output” of the
Californian wine industry is “watered back.

The regulations in the EU only allow the sale of wine for human consumption if it has undergone practices that are permitted in the EU, unless covered by separate agreement. Since none of the agreements covering wines from outside the EU permit addition of water, it appears that it is illegal to sell wine in the EU that has undergone such treatment. If routine water addition leads to a perception by consumers that winemaking is just another industrial process, this could depress profit margins throughout the wine industry. It therefore seems to be more of a long term threat than an opportunity.

- Rajiv Seth

Rajiv Seth is a wine educationist, Author and an expert in International Wine Legislation especially European Union. He is an expert in advising winery Laboratory set up and has written a number of manuals for Lab assistants of wineries. In1987, he became the first Indian to be awarded a gold medal from WSET, London. He also writes for DelWine. Contact him at

The views expressed by the author are his own and not necessarily that of delWine-editor



Guy Webber Says:

Nice article Rajiv. One factor has, however, been omitted from the discussion – the consumer. While Parker has supposedly had an effect on these higher alcohol levels, I believe that the consumer has had an even greater effect. Unlike wine drinkers of-old, modern wine consumers are increasingly wanting wines that are at their peaks at a young age. This due not only to the fact that life has become faster in general, but also to the facts that they don’t always have the funds to buy matured wines and certainly don’t have the time or space to buy wines now for maturing them themselves. This “instant gratification” on the part of the consumer has resulted in winemakers making wines which fit the bill – so to speak. For this to be in place, the grapes need to be riper, fruitier and sweeter – thus bigger, more alcoholic and more approachable wines. While it seems to be becoming a popular belief that the higher alcohol wines do not last, this has not been my experience and I fail to understand the theory behind it when there are so many examples of fortified wines around the world which have lasted for many decades. Why would an unfortified wine with the same alcohol content as a fortified wine not last as long simply because the alcohol is natural?

Posted @ May 06, 2010 16:17


Want to Comment ?
Please enter your comments in the space provided below. If there is a problem, please write directly to Thank you.

Generate a new image

Type letters from the image:

Please note that it may take some time to get your comment published...Editor

Wine In India, Indian Wine, International Wine, Asian Wine Academy, Beer, Champagne, World Wine Academy, World Wine, World Wines, Retail, Hotel


Copyright©indianwineacademy, 2003-2020 |All Rights Reserved
Developed & Designed by Sadilak SoftNet