Much ado has been made about a recent article documenting that the alcohol content in wines is often higher than stated on the label, and increasing. It’s been an open secret among winemakers for some time, but if the trend continues it threatens the whole concept of healthy drinking. Policymakers in the UK and elsewhere are already using it to bolster anti-drinking campaigns.
The analysis, from the University of California Davis and others, was comprehensive and included several factors. Over the past 2 decades, Old World wines have seen a greater increase in alcohol levels, but New World wines started out higher. Using heat index climate data, the authors found that part of the increase correlated to warmer growing conditions (resulting in higher sugar content translating into more alcohol), and part driven by consumer preference for riper wines with more concentrated flavors. Several factors contribute to the trend and confusion about what it means.
In the U.S., federal law allows for a tolerance of plus or minus 1.5% of stated alcohol content for wines with less than 14%, which means that a label can say for example 13.5% but actually contain almost 15. Studies on wine and health typically presume an alcohol content of 13% or less, consistent with how wines have traditionally been made. Because people tend to like higher alcohol wines, the regulation is essentially a health benefit loop-hole; it’s sort of like telling us we can get credit for eating our vegetables even though they are deep-fried.
Alcohol is a part of the healthy drinking equation, but only up to a point. Wine is not just sugar-free grape juice, and there is evidence that de-alcoholized wine does not provide the same level of health benefits. The problem is not that wine has alcohol, it’s a matter of how much is ideal.
The concept of healthy drinking goes back thousands of years. Philosophers in ancient Greece gathered around wine drinking parties (called symposia) and developed the very ideas upon which civilization is grounded. What is worth noting however is that the wine was always diluted with water, and it was considered unsophisticated to drink it undiluted; even a 50:50 mixture was deemed quite strong. The average wine from recent vintages today would have been judged barbaric by ancient standards.
There’s a lot at stake for the future of the wine industry and the well-established relationship with healthy living. How will winegrowers adapt to climate change and the shift in consumer preferences without erasing our excuse to enjoy wine? Let’s have a glass or two and philosophize about it – maybe we can figure something out.