The Wine Rules #2 – Alcohol
by Dudley Brown
Alcohol levels in wine are one of the more bizarre applications of The Wine Rules.
To get some sense of “how they do,’” quickly look at stated alcohol percentages on three or four bottles of red wine. How many say 14.5% alc/vol? Now look at the same wine from a few different vintages – is the alcohol level the same each vintage? Coincidence?
Given the enormous variations between varieties, vineyards, regions and vintages, how have so many red wines harmonically converged at the same level of alcohol?
Bottles of wine in Australia are required to offer two types of information about alcohol – the percentage of alcohol by volume in the wine and the “standard drinks” information. To arrive at the latter, a standard calculation is employed but, in short, a standard drink contains 10 grams of ethanol. When a winemaker bottles a wine, it would seem that they measure the alcohol level and have it printed on the label. The first step is a necessity, the second a source of confusion.
The rules state that the official tolerance for still and sparkling wine is 1.5% of stated alcohol. Thus, a bottle of red that is either 13% or 16% alcohol would be within the rules to say it is 14.5%. This isn’t a variation of “1.5%” as the rules say but a variation of 9% (more) and 11%(less) depending on whether 13% or 16% is the real alcohol level. For light or white wines, the effect is much greater – a wine labeled as 11% alc/vol can be between 9.5% and 12.5% alc/vol. The swing here is between 12% (more) and 15.7% (less) than the stated alcohol level. Its a fair assumption that most label information is on the low side rather than the high. The net is that we often consume a lot more alcohol than we think we do.
Does this matter? If you’re driving and / or assiduous about keeping track of your consumption, yes. A lot.
But, does it matter otherwise? I think so because the standard drinks calculation is based on the stated alcohol, not the actual percentage of alcohol by volume! For the reasons stated above, the standard drinks measure is consequently, and effectively, hopeless in assisting you to accurately gauge how much alcohol you’ve ingested. As the standard drinks requirement is there to provide consumers with information to protect themselves, shouldn’t it also be required to be accurate?
Winemakers try to achieve a few things when stating alcohol:
- Be accurate within the rules (above)
- Offer the consumer assurance that there is an appropriate level of alcohol to meet their expectations
- Not offend the the anti-high alcohol members of the wine trade (buyers, wine critics, sommeliers, etc) who decry “high alcohol” wines
- Make it easy for large volume winemakers to stir up a new batch of the “same” wine without having to print different labels for each batch.
Some of The Results
As where you stand depends on where you sit, the results of this rule are varied:
For a winemaker who honestly labels a red wine as, say 15.2% alc/vol, they might well get caned by much of the the trade and a segment of consumers for all manner of vinous infractions. Meanwhile a wine labelled 14.5% alc/vol that is really 16% alc/vol gets reviewed, bought and praised for its “suppleness and restraint.” This outcome is particularly pernicious in determining the fortunes of wines and winemakers. Why? Because of the wine rules, not because the wine rules.
Another effect is to confuse us – the consumer – into thinking that a wine labelled 14.5% wine but containing much more alcohol, tastes like that. Having sat through trials of the same wine at different levels of alcohol, a few tenths of a percent of alcohol can have enormous sensory variations. Accurate labeling information is important to people who care about and want to learn about wine. How many of us spend time reading, shopping, tasting, thinking or even writing about grape juice?
The worst effect is upon the reputation of the industry – those who use the variation allowed liberally debase the reputation of those who label wine honestly while simultaneously enhancing their own reputation.
As a result of all these, the rules make for a very brave winemaker to state anything higher than 14.5% regardless of the actual alcohol level.
The new Wine Rules
What matters here is that both the trade and consumers rely on the stated alcohol on the label because its the only information they have available to them. Understanding that winemakers are producers and purveyors of addictive and potentially dangerous products, shouldn’t they be required to communicate alcohol content with integrity, authenticity and transparency within a much smaller variance, say .2% or .3%, of stated alcohol rather than 1.5%?
What do you think?