Burden of Proof

When compared with, say, a typical 86-proof cognac (which means it’s 43 percent alcohol by volume), your typical wine at around 14 percent alcohol would seem about as threatening as a bottle of Evian—right? But the alcohol level in wine varies so widely, anywhere from 8 to 18 percent, that the effects of enjoying a few glasses with a meal can range from feeling nothing whatsoever to putting you to sleep with the spins.

More wines are skewing toward 14 percent, which has to do with the recent “hang time” trend of letting grapes stay on the vines longer so they develop fuller flavor. What also happens is that the grapes’ sugar levels continue to increase, which ferments out as higher alcohol. That is why so many red California zinfandels and Italian amarones, clocking in at upward of 16 percent, taste nearly as potent as fortified port wine, which is about 20 percent alcohol.

The higher the alcohol in wine, the more out of balance it becomes, putting a hard, bitter edge on an otherwise juicy, cassis-kissed cabernet. Worse, if it’s served above a room temperature of 65ºF, it will taste both literally and texturally hot.

Purists may argue that a wine isn’t properly balanced if it doesn’t reach at least 11 percent alcohol, but there are times when a lightweight wine is welcome. Joshua Wesson, co-founder of the Best Cellars wine stores, described Portugal’s low-alcohol (9 percent) vinho verde as “so refreshing it’s the preferred lunch wine of Portuguese dentists and plastic surgeons.”

Technically, there’s no category called “low-alcohol wines,” but if there were, all of its wines would be white. Along with vinho verde, check the labels on German rieslings, Italian moscato d’astis, and sparkling wines from all over the place. An added bonus is affordability: Lower alcohol usually means lower price.

Photograph by Tom Sicurella