The Lightest to the Strongest Wine
It’s a little known fact that the world’s largest wine producer, E. J.Gallo, built their empire off the success of their white wine called Thunderbird. The wine was originally designed to appeal to a young market and has now garnered cult status as a “bum wine.”
Why was Thunderbird such a success? Well, simply put it has 20% alcohol by volume (ABV). Let’s take a look at alcohol levels are in wine from the lightest to the strongest. Truth be told, alcohol content in wine ranges wildly from as low as 5.5% to 23% ABV. There are several factors that affect the alcohol content of wine including the style of wine, quality level, and climate where the grapes grow.
How much wine should we be drinking?
The rule of thumb is that a glass of wine is worth one standard drink and women get one of these a night and men get two. However, this makes the assumption that the wine is only 12% ABV. So if you’re drinking a high-alcohol wine like Port or Thunderbird (at 20% ABV), the recommended serving size is about half. Yep, sometimes it’s better to get a lower alcohol wine, especially if you love to drink.
You can drink more light-alcohol wine with the same effect as one glass of high-alcohol wine.
Low Alcohol Wines
The reason why these wines tend to be sweet is from the leftover grape sugar in the wine after the desired alcohol-level is reached. Leftover sweetness in wine is called residual sugar (RS) and comes from the sweetness of grapes at harvest time.
- Moscato d’Asti 5.5% ABV (lightly sparkling sweet white from Italy)
- Brachetto d’Acqui 6.5% ABV (lightly sparkling sweet red from Italy)
- Kabinett Riesling 8% ABV (light sweet German Riesling)
- Spätlese Riesling 8.5% ABV (rich sweet German Riesling)
- Alsace Blanc 9%–10% ABV (France)
- Muscadet 9.5% ABV (France)
NOTE: Looking for low alcohol, low calorie dry wines? Read this
Medium-Low Alcohol Wines
There are also several sparkling wines in this alcohol content category because the wine producers pick the grapes a little earlier in the season to insure that the wines stay zesty with higher acidity to compliment the bubbles.
- Muscadet (France)
- Touraine and Cheverny (Sauvignon Blanc from Loire, France)
- Lambrusco (Italy)
- Soave (Italy)
- Gavi (an Italian wine region that produces white wines with Cortese grapes.)
- Pinot Grigio (Italy)
- Grüner Veltliner (Austria)
Medium Alcohol Wines
- Bordeaux (Cabernet-Merlot blend from France)
- Bourgogne (Pinot Noir or Chardonay from France)
- Champagne (France)
- Côte du Rhône (France)
- Beaujolais (France)
- Chianti (Italy)
- Dolcetto (Italy)
- Barbera (Italy)
- Nebbiolo (Italy)
- Rosé Wine
- Sauvignon Blanc (California)
- Value Reds (California)
- Red Wines (Chile)
- Riesling (Washington)
- Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir (Oregon)
TIP: The higher the alcohol, the bolder and richer the wine will taste.
Medium-High Alcohol Wines
- Chardonnay (California and Washington)
- Viognier (California)
- Petite Sirah (California)
- Pinot Noir (California)
- Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot (California and Washington)
- Zinfandel (California)
- Grenache aka Garnacha (Spain and Australia)
- Shiraz (Australia)
- Pinotage (South Africa)
- Malbec (Argentina)
- Barolo (Italy)
- Amarone della Valpolicella (Italy)
- Brunello di Montalcino (Italy)
- Nero d’Avola (Italy)
- Châteauneuf-du-Pape (France)
High Alcohol Wines
- Shiraz ~15.5% ABV (Australia)
- Grenache-Syrah-Mourvèdre 15.5% ABV (California and Australia)
- Zinfandel up to 16% ABV (California)
- Late Harvest Dessert Wine 15–17% ABV
- Sherry 15–20% ABV (Spain)
- Port and Tawny Port ~20% ABV (Portugal)
- Banyuls and Maury ~20% ABV (France)
- Madeira ~20% ABV (Portugal)
- Marsala ~20% ABV (Sicily)
- Aromatized Wine (Vermouth) 20% ABV
- Other Fortified Wines
TIP: A wine that is described as “hot” means it has high alcohol content..
Have Wines Become More Alcoholic?
The reason why wine has become naturally higher in alcohol has a lot to do with science. Back in the 1950’s the yeast would not survive in alcohol levels too much higher than 13.5% ABV. In fact, it was common to get a “stuck fermentation” where yeasts would die before all the sugar in the grape juice had been converted into alcohol (This is how white zin was invented!). Today however, we’ve developed very resilient yeasts that can survive in alcohol levels as high as 16.5% ABV.