What is ABV and What are the Strongest Wines?

by tarynlachter

Have you ever noticed how some drinks hit you faster or give you a buzz where others don’t?

Maybe you’re sensitive to shots of liquor but wine is much gentler, or you can throw back multiple beers but if you did it with mixed drinks, you’d be toast.

This is because of the ABV, or the alcohol by volume in an alcoholic beverage.

Have you ever noticed how some drinks hit you faster or give you a buzz where others don’t? Maybe you’re sensitive to shots of liquor but wine is much gentler, or you can throw back multiple beers but if you did it with mixed drinks, you’d be toast.

This is because of the ABV, or the alcohol by volume in an alcoholic beverage. These are regulated by the same standards worldwide so you can always expect the same range of ABV in a specific category of drink no matter where you are. For instance, beer is between 4 and 7 percent whereas wine is between 5.5 and 16 percent, with most of them averaging between 12 and 14 percent.

In winemaking, the amount of alcohol is directly correlated to the amount of sugar in the grapes. During fermentation, the grapes are broken down into sugars which are converted to alcohol. There are a lot of variables that contribute to the level of sugar in grapes, like the temperature and amount of sunshine which positively affect sugar content.

A common misconception based on these facts is that sweeter wines will be higher in alcohol but in fact, it can be the opposite as the more sugars that are fermented, the higher the alcohol. You’ll notice the feeling of drinking a higher ABV wine – it will almost feel warm in your throat as you sip it. Think about the boldest red wine you’ve had – it has a distinct warming, slightly bitter feel when you first take a drink. That’s the alcohol making itself known.

What’s interesting about this is there is actually a variance allowed in a wine’s listed ABV. If a wine has an ABV of 12% noted on the label, it has a 1.5% margin allowance from the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau so it could be anywhere from 10.5% to 13.5%. 

So what are the strongest wines? The sweetest wines will have the most remaining sugars, meaning they weren’t converted to alcohol, so they will be the least strong wines. Think the delicious dessert style wines like a Moscato or a German Riesling. Then you’d have your cool climate whites and other sweet sparkling wines like Lambrusco or Gruner Veltliner.

Medium alcohol wines are the most commonly consumed wines like Chardonnay, general Reds, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, and Pinot Noir.

High alcohol wines are typically those that have been fortified like Port or Sherry but others like Australian Shiraz and California Zinfandel can top 15-17% ABV.

The only way you know how you’ll react to different ABV levels is to try them! Have a little bit of wines in varying level categories and see how you feel. A standard amount of wine is one glass so have your glass and measure the effects. This will let you know what ABV levels you can tolerate and what to resist.



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