Trend towards winemakers understating alcohol levels down from 15%, drinkers could overconsume without knowing.

Alcohol has been creeping up during the past quarter-century – by some estimates, 1.5 percentage points.

The rise of warm-climate regions, such as California, Southeast Australia and much of Chile and Argentina, accounts for some of the gain. Sun yields higher levels of grape sugars. Yeast feeds off sugar to produce alcohol. Blammo.

Fashion is another factor. Quality-oriented producers have been chasing bolder, more concentrated flavours, allowing grapes to hang longer on the vine in autumn. In many cases, they prune more assiduously to coax vines into faster ripening. Again, more sugar, more ethanol.  [….]

Maturation is a delicate dance. In warm regions, sugar levels accelerate ahead of physiological ripening, forcing producers to push for longer hang times to weed out the green. By the time those tannins soften, sugars can enter the danger zone. Presto: 15-per-cent alcohol.

It’s less of a problem in the best, cooler-climate vineyards, notably in Europe, where, for complex reasons linked not just to weather but also to soil composition, physiological ripeness can be achieved in a 12.5-per-cent wine that won’t fry brains.

Fear of frying may be the root of a more insidious industry practice: the tendency to understate alcohol levels. In a study of 91,432 wines from vineyards around the world produced during a 16-year period, researchers found last year that 57.1 per cent contained more alcohol than stated on the label. Among those, the average alcohol was 13.6 per cent versus a declared average of 13.1 per cent.

Incidentally, the study, published by the American Association of Wine Economists and co-written in part by George Soleas, senior vice-president of logistics and quality assurance at the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, based its findings on wines sold in Ontario. The reason? Ontario is one of the few jurisdictions to test alcohol on every product.

Lowball reporting is largely legal because various governments permit significant latitude between fact and fiction. The LCBO permits a tolerance of plus or minus one percentage point for wines at less than 14 per cent; for higher-alcohol wines, it’s plus or minus 0.5. In the United States, a producer can understate by as much as 1.5 percentage points. That’s a substantial error margin, deceptively placing many wines in the hot, head-numbing zone – it’s like secretly adding roughly half a glass of wine to every bottle you think you’ve consumed.

Based on informal discussions with winemakers, the study’s authors reported that some “admitted that they deliberately chose to understate the alcohol content on a wine label, within the range of error permitted by the law, because they believed that it would be advantageous for marketing the wine to do so.” In other words, Château Fruit Bomb believes that consumers are turned off by big alcohol. (Another incentive for distortion: Wines with more than 14 per cent generally are charged a higher tax rate.)

Other questionable practices are taking root to assuage consumer fear. Some producers resort to such technologies as reverse osmosis and spinning cones to extract alcohol, but these tweaks can yield off-balance wines. Then there’s the blunt garden-hose method: adding water, which is illegal in many regions.

Decry high-octane reds we may, but there is one advantage to excessive alcohol …. “It binds the free water in the wine and enhances the body,” Dr. van Vuuren said. “The wine becomes more viscous.” Velvety bombs are prized by many consumers, not to mention wine critics.

Reported as “What do you drink if you want lower-alcohol wine?” | Beppi Crosariol | Jan. 11, 2012 | Globe and Mail at http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/food-and-wine/wine/beppi-crosariol/what-do-you-drink-if-you-want-lower-alcohol-wine/article2297759/singlepage/#articlecontent.

Reference source is “Splendide Mendax: False Label Claims about High and Rising Alcohol Content of Wine”, Julian M. Alston, Kate B. Fuller, James T. Lapsley, George Soleas and Kabir P. Tumber, American Association of Wine Economists Working Paper No. 82, at http://www.wine-economics.org/workingpapers/AAWE_WP82.pdf, found at http://www.wine-economics.org/workingpapers/