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alcohol %

Back many decades ago when I first became interested in wine--I confess: in the 1960's it was Gallo Hearty Burgundy, Cribari Family Jug Red and Almaden Mountain Red; there, I said it--the bottles always listed alcohol content in round figures with no decimals. I did not really care much then. Now it is 13.7%, 14.6%, etc. Also, I recall being told that in California, while there were laws that governed this labeling, there was a liberal leeway allowed in alcohol labeling and European imports were even less trustworthy. What is the case today (now that I might really care).

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  1. Both the US and EU allow leeway between what is on the label and the actual abv. Makes sense because often labels are printed before the wine is finished. The variance in the us is 1.5 percentage points, i.e a wine labelled 12.5%abv could be anything between 11 and 14%.

    In the EU for reasons that I cannot comprehend it is illegal to show abv as anything other than a full number or .5, i.e. the two abv you mention in your post are illegal on EU labels. Similar variance is allowed.

    I don't think abv levels on EU labels are anymore untrustworthy than US labels, just that its a bit more obvious that its rarely exact.

    1. It should also be noted that above 14%, the allowable variance is lowered to, 1% in the U.S.

      1. Thanks to both Gussie and ellaystingray: this is just the info I sought.

        1. For several reasons, alcohol taxes being the most common, there is an incentive to understate the abv.

          I recall a lunch in the south of France where the grower announced the wine were drinking was just over 16%. I looked at the label on the bottle destined for the US and it read 14%. He just grinned and said they don't check.

          1. The ABVs for most of the 1960s California wines I've had had decimal points. They were all higher-end wines.

            In recent years I've seen a few bottles with two decimal points on the ABV.

            1. producers typically round down to save on taxes:

              "However, data from the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) offers evidence for the debate. Wineries must pay a higher excise tax for wines above 14% than those below, a distinction that has been in place since at least 1951. The current rate, in effect since 1991, is $1.57 per gallon above 14% and $1.07 per gallon below. This translates to $0.31 and $0.21, respectively, per 750-ml bottle. "



              however, hotter and hotter wines continue to be produced, as noted by the graph in that article.

              also as for label accuracy:

              "Our analysis revealed that about half the wines tested were accurate within 0.3 of the alcohol stated on the label—a surprise given the commonly held view that “everybody lies” about alcohol levels. It’s time to put such generalizations to bed. "


              the tenth of percents may simply be because testing is more accurate now.

              3 Replies
              1. re: hotoynoodle

                That article is from September 2010 so regards 2009 and previous vintages. Alcohol levels went steadily up starting around 1990, peaked in 2008, and declined in each of the three vintages since (data for 2012 should be published Monday).

                1. re: hotoynoodle

                  This explains the abundance of 13.9% wine in my area.

                2. Question: Why do you really care NOW, as opposed to days gone by? What's changed?

                  US labeling laws have not changed. The alcohol content MUST be stated on the label. This is true whether the wine is produced in the United States, or if the wine is imported into the US -- the labels of ALL wines ***sold*** in the US, regardless of their country of origin, must meet US labeling requirements. An indication of alcohol content is but one such requirement.

                  Under 14 percent is one tax rate; over 14 percent is another.

                  For wines which are 14.00 percent or less, there is a "fudge factor" of +/- 1.5% BUT with a hard ceiling of 14.00 -- so, for example, a wine which is labeled 12½% abv (alcohol by volume) may in fact contain anywhere from 11.0-14.0%, but a wine labeled 13.2% may contain 11.7-14.0% --> it cannot exceed 14.

                  A wine labeled simply "Table Wine"(as an indication of alcohol) is defined as 14 percent or less.

                  As I've mentioned elsewhere on Chowhound, Ridge Vineyards famously alternated between decimal points and fractions. If a wine's alcoholic content was indicated with a decimal point, you could be reasonably assured it was accurate. OTOH, if it was indicated with a fraction, then they were lying through their teeth and hoping to dodge the higher tax rate imposed on wines which were over 14.0% abv.

                  Wines containing 14.01% abv or greater have a label tolerance of 1.0%, rather than 1.5%.

                  In the old days -- that is, the 1960s and 1970s -- we would get our labels printed LITERALLY 1,000,000+ at a time . . . everything except the vintage date. Then, when we knew -- for example -- that we had 10,000 cases of Merlot to bottle, we'd take 125,000 labels to the local printer in St. Helena merely to add the vintage year to the labels. The alcohol was already there: 12.5%. Year in, year out. 12.5%.

                  And we weren't the only ones . . . .

                  12 Replies
                  1. re: zin1953

                    RE: "why do you really care NOW, as opposed to days gone by? What's changed?"
                    Well, for one thing when I was in college in the late 1950's and we were passing around that Cribari wine with the watchful eye of The Fundador on the jug label while a guitar-playing folkie sang "Michael Row the Boat Ashore", we did NOT care; for another, I did not say I cared--I said I might care. I knew there were regulations but did not know what, and was curious about how accurate labeling might be. That's all. Sometimes a wine seems hot to me and I am surprised at the listed alcohol content. I liked your comment about label printing in the old days.

                    1. re: alfairfax

                      l am not trying to be difficult, but there is little DIRECT correlation between the alcohol content and the sensation of a wine being "hot" on the palate. That is, I've had wines that seemed hot with an alcoholic content of 15.7-16.5 percent abv, but I've also had wines that seemed hot at 12.5-13.5 percent.

                      It's about "balance."

                      1. re: zin1953

                        "Balance." A term that seems to have been totally lost, as too many focus on numbers, and "scientific studies," and forget about the balance of a wine.

                        Was it not Japan, where the claim was made that the scientists had uncovered all of the chemical aspects of "great wine," and could create it in the lab, based on their numbers? How did that work out?


                        1. re: Bill Hunt

                          Japan? Probably . . .

                          Leo McCloskey still thinks (TTBOMK) that, as he told me years ago, if he can replicate the GC (or was is GC/MS) chromatograms for a 1961 Château Latour, then the wine will taste like (and for all intents and purposes be) Château Latour.


                          And yet, his company Enologix -- http://www.enologix.com -- is in high demand . . .

                          1. re: zin1953

                            I do not recall having the Ch. Latour '61, or, if I did, do not really recall it (having done several Ch. Latour vertical tastings and dinners), but the '70 DID stick in my memory bank. Now, "cloning" that might be a worthy effort - or maybe not?


                    2. re: zin1953

                      "Wines containing 14.01% abv or greater have a label tolerance of 1.0%, rather than 1.5%."

                      So 15.5% can be labeled 14% but 15.6% can't be labeled lower than 14.6%?

                      1. re: Robert Lauriston

                        Wrong. If a wine contains 15.5% it cannot be labeled lower than 14.5% and taxed accordingly. It is the abv of the wine that drives the label: not vice versa.

                        1. re: jock

                          Ah. So 14.0% can be labeled 12.5% but 14.1% cannot be labeled lower than 13.1%?

                          1. re: Robert Lauriston

                            No one ever accused the government or the bureaucrats of being particularly logical.

                            1. re: Robert Lauriston

                              Hard ceiling / hard floor -- like I said, it's all about taxes . . .

                              IN THEORY, Robert, a wine that is FACTUALLY 14.1% cannot be labeled below 14%, as it's a tax issue . . . does this mean it never happens? Did you read what I said about Ridge Vineyards?

                              ATF never -- sorry, TTB -- never (OK, "rarely if ever") checks.

                              1. re: zin1953

                                I'm just trying to understand the letter of the law as regards how the 1.5% vs. 1% fudge factor plays out.

                                I guess what the law theoretically allows is trumped by the reality that nobody's going to overstate the ABV to bump the wine into the >14% tax bracket.

                                1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                  Robert, I am not sure what it is about "hard ceiling/hard floor" that is hard to understand.

                                  Presuming that the legal alcohol statement is numerical in nature -- again, if the wine is <14% abv, the label can simply state (in 2 pt. type) "Table Wine"; that *is* the alcohol statement -- the legal requirement is that, in terms of decimal points, it can get carried out to one-tenth of one percent (e.g.: "12.5% abv" is a legally permitted statement; "12.58% abv" is not).

                                  Up to 14.00% is one tax rate; at 14.01%, the tax rate increases. At 14.0% or less, the "fudge factor" is +/-1.5%, BUT there is a -- how about "firewall," rather than "hard ceiling"? -- at 14.01% abv. So that, as I said above, a wine that is *labeled* 12.5% may, in fact, actually contain anything from 11.0-14.0% abv. But a wine that is *labeled* 13.5%, may in reality be between 12.0-14.0%; a wine labeled 13.8% may in reality be between 12.3-14.0% . . .

                                  Over 14.01%, the factor is +/-1.0%, but the 14.0 firewall still exists . . . so a wine that is *labeled* 15.5% abv may in reality contain anything between 14.5-16.5% -- BUT a wine *labeled* 14.5% will contain anything from 14.01% (in other words, it must be over 14.00%, and taxed at the higher rate) to 15.5%.

                                  The reality is a) yes, no one really wants to be taxed at the higher rate voluntarily, and b) the TTB rarely checks -- but the penalties (if you get caught) aren't worth it.

                      2. The law says you can just say "table wine" if it's between 7 and 14%, but I haven't seen a bottle without a percentage in this country in years. Are there state laws or something that give wineries a reason not to use the "table wine" label?

                        I don't see anything in the law prohibiting two decimal points. I've seen TTB-approved labels that used them.


                        18 Replies
                        1. re: Robert Lauriston

                          I've seen US wines labelled as 'table wine' to avoid having to print an abv.. The reason is quite simpleit saves the winery having to get annual label approval from TTB.

                          For a small production winery it means they can print a large batch of labels and use the sames label for several years.

                          1. re: Gussie Finknottle

                            Which wines? I honestly can't remember ever having seen such a label.

                            1. re: Robert Lauriston

                              There were DOZENS of them in the 1960s and 1970s. Clos du Val, for example, used to use the designation "Table Wine," as did many other Napa producers. But remember, you CAN'T use it if your wine is 14.01+%, and what wine from California is below 14% these days? (It's a rhetorical question, Robert; you need not feel compelled to list examples.)

                              1. re: zin1953

                                The label laws aren't specific to California wines. The vast majority of the wines I buy are under 14%.

                                Seems odd that none of them use "table wine." Maybe they think it would look cheap.

                                1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                  Clearly, Robert, what YOU think is "odd," versus what I (and a great many wineries) think is "odd," is rather at odds . . . don't you think?

                                  In today's marketplace, when consumers want/demand more and more information -- what's the blend of that wine? how long did it spend in what kind of oak? (and so on and so on) -- do you REALLY think that the average consumer WHO TAKES NOTE of what is on a wine label would honestly "put up" with no (pseudo-)concrete abv number?

                                  How many times have you read on this site, or overheard in a retail store, some PRESUMED "fact" about a wine based solely upon the alcohol content? Most often, it's along the lines of, "Oh, this wine is going to be hot -- it's 15.2% alcohol."

                                  While you and I may *prefer* wines which are lower in overall alcohol, it most certainly is NOT because a wine which is 15+% abv is always hot, whereas a wine below 13% is always not! I would venture to say you and I have both had wines that were around 13% that were fine and balanced, and wines around13% that seems hot on the palate; wines that were over 15% that were hot on the palate, and wines over 15% that were fine and balanced.

                                  The specific number doesn't mean $#!+, and yet consumers WANT to know . . .

                                  Every winery I ever asked, when they switched from "Table Wine" to a number -- presuming the wine was still <14% abc -- told me they did so due to the flak they received from consumers.

                                  1. re: zin1953

                                    I don't have even a small fraction of the knowledge you do about CA wine, but if abv is so important to the consumer why do so many wineries use such small print for the abv and sometimes place the info in such a position it has to be hunted out.

                                    I'm thinking now of a wine with an informative back label on which I couldn't find the abv and eventually found it in very small vertical print on the edge of the front label.

                                    1. re: Gussie Finknottle

                                      Again, really? Serious question???

                                      Wineries print the abv in 2-point type because that's the minimum size type mandated by TTB. Would you have the winery put the alcohol content in the same size as the brand name? Larger? What's the most important wording on the label . . . TO the people responsible for PRINTING the labels?

                                      As I said above, I'm happiest when the alcohol content isn't there -- but only the term "Table Wine." It's an position that many winemakers privately agree with, but -- again -- a) it doesn't work with wines which are over 14.01%, and b) lots of wineries were criticized for saying "Table Wine," accused of having "something to hide." My second happiest is when, as you describe it, the abv is as small as possible, vertical, and in as light a contrasting ink as legally permitted . . .

                                      1. re: zin1953

                                        When I need a flashlight, a magnifying glass, and five minutes to find and read the ABV part of the label, it sure feels like the winery thinks it has something to hide.

                                        Only a small minority of labels are designed that way, so limited space is no excuse.

                                        1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                          I am SO GLAD, Robert, that you don't own a winery/design labels . . . .

                                          On the other hand, you *do* prove my point about [some] consumers thinking that alcohol is important.

                                        2. re: zin1953

                                          Again, really? Serious question???
                                          Would you have the winery put the alcohol content in the same size as the brand name?


                                          I'd have it in in a size and postition clearly readable, not hidden away in tiny print on a background image.

                                          1. re: Gussie Finknottle

                                            Well then, I'm glad you AND Robert don't design labels . . . ;^)

                                            Wasn't trying to be rude -- sorry -- but your comment, quite frankly, surprised me as I wold have thought (up until now) that you understood the issue . . . let's say, "in a different way."

                                            As I've previously stated, the alcohol content is the most misunderstood, misleading piece of information on the label. I know I'm in the minority when I say I wish labels just said "Table Wine"; c'est la vie.

                                            The government regulations regarding labeling are lengthy and something of a nightmare for wineries/importers. Minimum type sizes are specified, as are contracting color requirements. It's a long list. But certainly "Jean Deaux Vineyards" is more important than the city in which the wine was bottled; the varietal or proprietary name of the wine is more important than the abv . . . not only to the consumer (at least one hopes), but also to the winery which is trying to create and maintain some sort of "brand awareness" in the eye of the consumer -- be it Niepoort and Ca' del Solo, with cartoons and funny drawings, or Ridge and Lafite Rothschild with their now-iconic labels.

                                        3. re: Gussie Finknottle

                                          Because labels are bl**dy expensive to design, lay out, and print, and there's so much stuff that's required by law, that they have to print it small, or you'd have a wine bottle with a label that rolls up like toilet paper.

                                          There's only so much space on that label -- they have to be miserly with design and type face to fit all the stuff they need to put on there.

                                          1. re: sunshine842

                                            We're talking about something as brief as 14.5% abv. It's not beyond the wit of American label designers. But per Jasnon, they're doingtheminimum reqd by TTB.

                                            All EU labels manage to print abv clearly and of decent size.

                                            1. re: Gussie Finknottle

                                              Historically, the alcohol was always printed on the import strip, and quite often said, "Alcohol 11-14% by vol." (That would work, too, in lieu of "Table Wine.") Today importers often use a larger, "back label" as opposed to a simple strip, but the alcohol is still often found there, rather than on the "main" or front label. And when the alcohol content *is* listed on the main label, it's often labeled to fulfill the EU requirements, not US ones.

                                              1. re: Gussie Finknottle

                                                EU labels aren't required to carry as much excess verbiage as US labels.

                                                And it's not anything about the wit of American label designers -- it's strictly about space. And if they mandate that it has to be x point -- why would you really want/need to make it bigger?

                                2. re: Robert Lauriston

                                  Personally, I *prefer* it when a label says "Table Wine," rather than a specific percentage . . .

                                    1. re: Gussie Finknottle

                                      It's because I think that the abv is THE most misunderstood tidbit of information that appears on wine labels . . .

                                3. I think I'll start complaining to the TTB when I see labels where the ABV is hard to read due to a lack of contrast:

                                  4.38(a) Legibility. All labels shall be so designed that all the statements thereon required by §§ 4.30 through 4.39 are readily legible under ordinary conditions, and all such statement shall be on a contrasting background.


                                  1 Reply
                                  1. It is my understanding (from some of my compliance friends) that the TTB actually PREFERS the ABV to be small. The reasoning is that making the ABV stand out, particularly, has the appearance of promoting how much alcohol is in the product meaing promoting getting drunk. Now don't get going on the likelihood of people trying just to get hammered buying a $40 bottle of Zinfandel or if this is logical or not. It is similar reasoning that is keeping shipping laws stuck in idiotic limbo--that underage kids will use a parents credit card to order wine by mail...these are oversimplifications but are representitive of why things are the way they are.

                                    Moreover, the wine industry isn't interested in highlighting ABV becuase it can come across as promoting wine being a way to get drunk (quicker than beer!) as opposed to part of a gracious way of living. Again, this is sort of marketing speak but you get the picture. And I can assure you that every single person I know in the business would prefer you taste the wine first, leaving aside making you drink white wine if you only like red and such, and then sort out whatever facts you think you want to know. Sorting out ABV first is kind of like saying you will only buy a car that has under 200 horsepower because speed kills.

                                    And for Robert, instead of complaining to the TTB I suggest you do something a lot more effective--stop buying any wines where you believe the ABV isn't printed clearly enough.

                                    4 Replies
                                      1. re: ellaystingray

                                        I generally don't buy those wines, because when I find the tiny, low-contrast ABV it's 15 or 16%, and I never buy a wine with ABV that high unless I've tasted it or someone I trust tells me I won't hate it.

                                        1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                          Yes, Robert, 'cuz all the wineries mess with the contrasting ink colors when the alcohol exceeds 14.9% abv . . . .

                                          1. re: zin1953

                                            I'd say only about one in ten of the >=15% labels I see are at all hard to read.