Ah, the fabulous world of wine. Wine can vary in color, flavor, and alcohol content. Even the age of wine is an important part of understanding the intricacies of wine. We put together this wine alcohol content guide to help you make more informed decisions.
In the world of spirits, wine is not known for having particularly high alcohol by volume (ABV). ABV is a percentage measurement of the total amount of alcohol present within a beverage. If a particular wine has 15% ABV, then 15mLs would be pure ethyl alcohol—also known as ethanol— in a 100mL sample.
So, what is ethyl alcohol and why is it in wine? Creating wine requires the fermentation of grapes using yeast. The yeast breaks down the sugars present in the grapes and converts them into carbon dioxide and ethanol. This process is what makes wine an alcoholic beverage. Don't worry about the sugar, not all of it is broken down. The remaining sugar in wine is what makes it sweet.
What Is the Average Alcohol Content of Wine?
Wine can have anywhere between 5% and 23% ABV. The average alcohol content of wine is about 12%. This amount varies depending on the variety of wine, as well as the winemaker and their desired ABV. Some wines within the same family can even see differences in the alcohol content due to the location of the vineyard and winery.
If you happen to discover bottle shock in wine, you'll note that the alcohol is more apparent. This is not due to increased ABV, just weakened flavors. On the opposite end, you may think that an oxidized wine has less alcohol. In fact, it just has a stronger flavor. Fermentation is the only time the alcohol content changes in wine.
Since there is such a wide range in alcohol content, it's beneficial to take a closer look at the different varieties. In general, the heavier the wine, the greater the alcohol content. You can learn all about the differences in wine varietals by picking up some of the best wine books available.
Red Wine Alcohol Content
The alcohol content of red wine usually falls between 12% and 15%, with an average of 13.5% ABV. Red wines tend to have higher alcohol content than their white counterparts. Red wines are made of grapes that are usually harvested late in the season. These grapes have more sugar than the grapes used in white wines, so fermentation leads to a higher concentration of alcohol.
The fermentation process also leads to a higher level of tannins in red wine which gives it a much stronger coloration. This beautiful color is why you may also need to learn how to remove red wine stains or find the best wine stain removers.
White Wine Alcohol Content
The alcohol content in white wine varies from 5% to 14% but comes in at an average of 10% ABV. The less ripe, white grapes used in fermentation have less sugar than darker grapes. This sugar converts to ethanol at a lower rate as well. This gives white wine its sweet taste but keeps it light and refreshing.
Since there's less alcohol, it's also easy to drink more white wine in one sitting. This can sometimes be more than intended. To avoid this, try only using a standard wine pour or pick up a set of wine glasses with pour lines.
Wine Cooler Alcohol Content
Wine coolers have a much lower alcohol content than most other wines, coming in at an average of 4-6% ABV. These drinks have a lower ABV because they are only partially wine. This wine is usually also mixed with fruit juice, a carbonated beverage, and sugar.
Wine coolers have been a popular party drink of choice since the 1980s due to their lower level of alcohol and sweet taste. In the United States, many "wine coolers" don't even have wine in them. In their place, malt liquor is used to skirt excise taxes on wine while maintaining the alcohol levels.
Port Wine Alcohol Content
Port wine is a heavy, dark, red wine with an alcohol content of 16% to 20%, with an average of 18% ABV. Port wine has more alcohol than other reds because it is a fortified wine. Fortification is when a wine has distilled grape spirits added during fermentation. This halts the fermentation process before all sugar is converted to alcohol making port sweeter than most reds as well. It also increases the alcohol content since the spirits added have a high ABV.
Sweet Wine Alcohol Content
The sweetness of wine is inextricably linked to its alcohol content, and wine classified as sweet wine usually has less than 10% ABV. Sweet wine is a generic term covering many dessert wines, usually white wines. Some sweet wine can have as little as 5% ABV. Since there's so much sugar, you might want to avoid dessert wines if you care about the number of calories in a bottle of wine.
Rieslings, sauvignon blanc, and moscato are a few of the wines that fall under this category. These wines also have smaller serving sizes than other white wines due to the high level of sugar remaining within them after fermentation.
Rose Wine Alcohol Content
Rose wine (or rosé) falls on the color spectrum in between a red and white and has an average alcohol content of 12% ABV. Rosé wines are fermented with the grape juice that has contact with the grape skins for a short period. This adds some coloration to the wine but keeps it from being a true red wine.
Since rosé is a wine that is in the middle of the others, it can vary in hue, alcohol content, and taste. Many people think of rosé wines as pink, but they can be anywhere from purple to orange. Rosé wines can also run the gamut from sweet to dry. Some common rosé wines are white zinfandel, Provencal rosé, and Blush Chablis.
Cooking Wine Alcohol Content
Cooking wine is intended to be used in the cooking process and usually has an alcohol content between 12% and 20%. Many wines can be used in cooking, but "cooking wine" is created differently than drinking wines. Cooking wine is fermented with the intent to achieve a higher amount of alcohol. This is paired with a large amount of salt in the wine. This is due to the fact that much of the alcohol and salt will be burned off during the cooking process. If the wine had a lower ABV, you may not get the intended effect in the end result.
Cooking wine is not intended for drinking, so the ABV can be misleading. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, food baked or simmered in alcohol for an hour only has 25% of the alcohol left. After two hours, that number is down to 5%. You will never cook out the entirety of the alcohol.
Moscato Wine Alcohol Content
As a sweet dessert wine, moscato has a low alcohol content of 5% to 7% ABV. Moscato is made from Italian Muscat grapes which are also commonly used to make raisins. This grape gives the wine a light, sugary flavor profile reminiscent of peaches or oranges.
The sweet, citrus flavor of moscato has made it very popular in recent years. The wine is often served as the dessert to a fine dining experience or enjoyed during the summer as a refreshing drink. It might even make delicious adult popsicles if you happen to freeze the wine.
Plum Wine Alcohol Content
Sweet-and-sour plum wine is immensely popular in Japan and has an average alcohol content of 12% ABV. The wine originated in China but is most prevalent in Japan and is called Umeshu. This name is derived from the Ume plum it is derived from. These plums are fermented with sugar, leading to a wine that is both sweet and sour. This added sugar also helps achieve a moderately-high level of alcohol even though the wine is a light color. Umeshu was also historically used as a medicine in many Southeast Asian cultures due to the antioxidant properties of the plums.
With such a unique flavor profile, drinking plum wine might make you completely forget that wine is acidic.
List of Highest Alcohol Content Wine
Though actual ABV varies by winemaker and region, here are the five varieties of wine with the highest alcohol content:
Cheapest Wine with Highest Alcohol Content
Brands such as Barefoot, Josh Cellars, and Beringer all offer wines above 10% ABV while keeping the costs $10 or less. Wine doesn't have to be expensive to be delicious nor to have high alcohol content. Most low-cost wines also tend to be white wines or rosé, so you may be limited if red wines are your preference. We highly recommend you take a look at any lower-priced wines you encounter during your wine adventures. There are far more diamonds in the rough than you think. Just make sure to adhere to the recommended wine storage temperature. Cheap wine should still be treated with respect.
Now You Know, and Knowing Is Half the Battle!
What does this all mean? Knowing the alcohol content of wine can help you make better decisions about the wine you choose. It's important when deciding how much to drink and understanding how it will affect you.