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high alcohol wines

Which Wines Have The Highest Alcohol Content?

A glass of wine is an ideal beverage for those who want a mild buzz along with a great tasting drink. On average, wines have an 11.5% ABV (alcohol by volume), more than beer but not as much as a spirit like a vodka or rum. However, some wines have a higher alcoholic percentage, usually because of the region where they are produced or the grape used. Although high alcohol wines do not differ much in flavor, they are an exciting choice for those with a higher tolerance for drinks. 

So, how does it happen? And what are the main regions and grapes that usually make a high alcohol wine?

What Makes These Wines Have More Alcohol

To produce alcohol, you need sugar, water, and yeast. High alcohol wines are made by using grapes with a higher sugar concentration, known as natural fortification. The yeast activated during fermentation, where wine is made, “eats” the sugar from the grapes and, together with water, produces alcohol. 

When fermented all the way through to make a dry wine, the high sugar levels on these grapes produce high alcohol levels. It means that the yeast “ate” almost all of the available sugar. Sometimes extra grape juice is added to the mix during fermentation to increase the sugar levels in the liquid, inducing the production of even more alcohol. 

For naturally fortified wines, the average ABV is 14-15%. A drier Zinfandel, for example, has a 14-15.5% ABV. The Zinfandel grape is naturally sweeter than other grape varieties, translating into a high-alcoholic wine when fermented or a sweeter wine in case the producer decides to stop with the fermentation a little earlier. 

Styles of Wine With the Most Alcohol

For naturally fortified wines, the ones with higher ABV come from sweeter grapes, usually grown in regions with warmer climates. The sunlight speeds up grape ripening, increasing its sugar concentration levels. Overly ripe grapes are extremely sweet, meaning that the yeast has plenty of sugar to eat and transform into alcohol.

Red Wines With High Alcohol

Regions like California, Italy, Australia, South Africa, and New Zealand are known for their warm climate, which influences the maturation of grapes and increases their sugar content. 

Growing red grapes with already high sugar levels like Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, or Zinfandel can naturally produce high alcohol wines. So, some of the most alcoholic red wines you’ll find are usually the ones that come from these regions. 

As for vintage, try to find a year where the temperature levels were higher. The grapes harvested during that time will produce high alcohol wines.

White Wines With High Alcohol

White grapes are usually sweeter than red ones. When winemakers make a dry wine out of sugary grapes in warm climates, they need to ferment it for longer and therefore increase the alcoholic volume of the beverage. 

Grapes like Chardonnay and Muscat have high sugar concentrations. Because of that, to become a dry wine, they have more alcohol than other white grape varieties like Muscadet or Riesling. 

Regions that produce white wines, like California, Southern France, and Italy, make some of the most popular white wines with high alcohol.

What Are Fortified Wines

Many producers like to make an entirely different product, known as fortified wines. These types of wine show a 20% average ABV and can have highly complex flavor profiles. Fortified wines are incredibly famous in European countries like Italy, Spain, and Portugal. 

Fortification happens when you add extra alcohol to already fermented wine. Winemakers usually add neutral spirits to the mix, like a distilled grape brandy. This method automatically increases the alcohol percentage of the beverage.

Fortifying wines started as a method to preserve the flavors of the grapes during the maturation process. Fortified wines like Port, Sherry, Marsala, and Vermouth are quite popular in many parts of the world and often have an ABV between 18-25%.

Fortified wines that have added alcohol are usually stronger than wines that have been fortified naturally. These wines are generally a bit more expensive than the average wine and come in smaller bottles. Many are also sweeter than most common wines, so people typically pair them with dessert or take them as a digestivo after a meal.

Exploring fortified wines and their pairings is an exciting way to dive deeper into the world of wine. Because of their high alcohol percentage, these wines are typically served in smaller glasses or smaller portions and are incredibly flavorful. They are usually aged in oak barrels that give them original and characteristic flavors. 

Main Types of Fortified Wine

fortified wine
Photo: wine-searcher.com

Port

Port wine is produced in Portugal. Port wine comes in different styles: ruby or tawny, depending on their maturation process, and even in white or rose form. Before completing the fermentation process, winemakers fortify a regular wine with brandy. This gives the beverage a sweet and alcoholic profile, with a 20% ABV on average.  

Madeira 

Madeira wine is produced in the Madeira Islands from Portugal. The production process is complex and has been perfected over many years. Winemakers work with heating, aging, oxidizing, and pasteurizing to achieve quality status. It can be made quickly in hot and steamy tanks or over many decades during natural production. 

Marsala

Marsala wine comes from the city of Marsala on the Italian island of Sicily. Because of its wide range of flavor and sweetness, people usually have it as an aperitivo or a dessert wine. Professionals categorize it by age, sweetness, color, and amount of sugar residue. 

Sherry

Sherry wine is a white wine fortified with brandy. It comes from the Jerez region of Spain, where they let the beverage be in contact with oxygen to grant its characteristic briny and biscuity flavors. Winemakers apply the solara method to the production of Sherry wine, where different barrels from different vintages are blended. 

High alcohol wines are more common than one might think. Exploring these flavors and vintages is a great way to get to know a little better about the world of wine and how alcohol levels can impact the flavor and your perception of the beverage. 

Dive into fortified wines to discover a whole new beverage, perfect for dessert or as an aperitivo with friends or family, right before that big Sunday lunch. Also, keep reading our posts for more news and information on wine! 

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