“Dear Karen: How accurate are the alcohol levels listed on a wine’s label? The alcohol listed on the label of our favorite wine never changes. But it seems like it should change because some vintages are warmer than others. Thoughts?”— Tina and Collin W. (Houston, TX)
Dear Tina and Collin, Well, you’ve put your finger on a very interesting issue. By law, wine producers must list the amount of alcohol a wine contains on the wine’s label. Most wines contain somewhere between 12.5 and 15 percent. But if you were hoping to use the percentage listed as, say, a guide to drinking at the lower end of the spectrum, you’re a bit out of luck. To begin with, wineries sometimes need to print their labels (which list the alcohol level) even before a wine has even been made. Second, enforcement in both Europe and the United States is not particularly stringent allowing winemakers to estimate (and often understate) the alcohol and be done with it. But, in the United States, even for producers who adhere strictly to the rules, the rules themselves have considerable wiggle room. In the U.S. wines containing 14% or less alcohol, can be labeled plus or minus 1.5 percentage points. So that light, elegant wine you bought which was labeled 12.5 percent alcohol could actually contain 14 percent. For wines over 14 percent alcohol, a 1 percent variance is allowed. So a wine labeled 14.5 percent alcohol, could actually contain 15.5 percent. No wine (except for fortified wines) is ever over about 16.5 percent alcohol because at that concentration, yeasts die from the very alcohol they are making, preventing them from making more.