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Wine Advisor Express:
The strength of wine

How strong is wine? It depends.

The British wine writer Jancis Robinson once pointed out that alcohol is the most obvious element that distinguishes wine from grape juice, yet it's the one aspect of wine least discussed by consumers.

Nevertheless, a reader raised the issue the other day, asking, "What is the highest alcohol percent known for a bottle of wine?"

This question is simpler to answer under law than in practice: In the United States, at least, to be labeled "table wine," wine made from grapes must be between 7 and 14 percent by volume. The rules in Europe are similar, but the minimum is 8.5 percent. U.S. wines over 14 percent alcohol are listed as "dessert wines" (even if they're not sweet!) and this distinction is not trivial as it places the beverage into a different tax bracket.

As a practical matter, the yeast that ferments wine normally dies when the alcohol reaches about 14 to 15 percent, and most wines that exceed that robust level do so because they've been "fortified," having brandy added as in Sherry and Port. But you'll see an occasional non-fortified wine exceed the usual limit, particularly very big Zinfandels, Italian Amarones, and a few Rhone reds from ripe vintages, which I've occasionally seen with alcohol levels up to 15 or even 16 percent.

Fortified wines are generally in the range of 18 to 20 percent, although the U.S. legal limit permits "dessert wines" up to 24 percent.

At the other end of the scale, most regular table wines fall into the range of 11 to 14 percent, but a few are lower in alcohol. German wines, for example, frequently show up in the neighborhood of 8 or 9 percent. And the Italian Moscato d'Asti, a light and lively summer wine, may be as light as 5 percent.

Regardless of the strength of your wine, moderation is the key to enjoyment, of course ... and there's a reason why Port is generally sipped in small doses!

Join me on a trip to
the Rhone and Provence

I invite you to join me next June in a seven-day journey through the southern Rhone Valley and Provence, sponsored by French Wine Explorers, a high-quality American tour company that specializes in wine tours of France.

Lauriann Greene and Jean-Pierre Sollin, sommeliers-conseil who live in France, will join me to present this tour, which will feature a week of in-depth exploration of the wines of these two beautiful regions.

The tour is limited to 16 participants, so reservations will remain open only until these places are filled. For more information, click to the details at http://www.wineloverspage.com/tour.

Administrivia
This is Wine Advisor Express, daily edition of The 30 Second Wine Advisor, distributed Tuesdays through Fridays. For archives of previous articles, and to read more about wine, visit Wine Lovers' Page, http://www.wineloverspage.com.

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Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2002
Copyright 2001 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved.

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