JWL Issue #087: What Dictates Alcohol in Wine?

March 3, 2020

I was hugely impressed last week with some of the wines Lidl are releasing for Spring this year. I’ll feature them nearer to the time, but it was great to see some absurdly good value. The quick summary: lots of lesser known grapes making a name for themselves.

The March edition of The Wine List ships on Wednesday and Thursday this week. I’m currently conducting customer research with customers, but if you haven’t signed up and don’t work in the trade: then hit reply. I want to hear from you too.


I feel like crémant is really having its year at the moment. Every supermarket seems to have at least one, and it’s increasingly available by the glass on wine lists. Prince Alexandre Crémant de Loire (£12.99 from Waitrose) blends chenin, chardonnay and cabernet franc. The result is a fresh but gentle, with green apples throughout.

Ciabot Berton Fisetta (£14.95 from Gerrard Seel) is a wonderful barbera. Markedly low in tannins for a red like this, but still full of flavour, with redcurrants, berries, and something floral coming together. We drank this at Anchor & Hope recently and went wonderfully with Sunday lunch.

Finally, while most of the Lidl tasting was looking forward, they also had their two new sub-£10 magnums available to taste. I didn’t care too much for the Nero, but the Chianti (complete with straw basket) was actually pretty drinkable. If you’ve got a party coming up soon, want the fun and kitsch of a magnum of Chianti, and a £10 budget, then that might be just the ticket.    


What dictates the alcohol content in wine?

Low and no alcohol is on the up, so I thought I’d answer this question about alcohol content in wine.

Alcohol is produced when the sugars in grapes ferment. The ripeness of the grape affects how much sugar there is, which means that climate, and weather both affect potential alcohol level.

If there isn’t enough natural sugar in a wine, winemakers can choose to ‘chaptalise’ the wines meaning they add more sugar into the grape juice before fermentation. As with all winemaker interventions, some winemakers choose to avoid this.

This means that a cool climate wine that’s ‘naturally’ made might lean towards being naturally lower in alcohol.

'Low alcohol’ wines are defined as those under 10% ABV. Medium sits between 10% and 15%, and then 'high’ is 15% and above.

The trend over the last 30 years or so has broadly been towards higher alcohol wines. Many cite the reason for this as Robert Parker, an American wine critic, whose preference for high alcohol wines combined with his influence have meant winemakers have chased those higher ABVs. Many Californian Bordeaux blends - and indeed many Bordeaux themselves now - fall into this 15%+ category of wine.

Cool climate wines like those from England, will often lend themselves to being lower in alcohol. 

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