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There's More Alcohol in Wine Than Labels Suggest

According to new research published in the Journal of Wine Economics, there is more alcohol in wine than what producers are letting on.
January 6, 2016, 10:00pm

For all of the supposed health benefits of wine, which include burning fat, protecting the human heart, and even helping liver cells, there is a dark side to rotten grapes.

Trace amounts of sturgeon bladder, blood, and crustacean exoskeletons are used in present in a wide range of wines because of their use in the clarifying process. Even small amount arsenic, the poison of choice for the murderers of yore, has been found in American wines, though that probably has more to do with rock fragmentation than any kind of old-fashioned murder plot.

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Still, most drinkers are willing to consume trace amounts of these weird ingredients in order to benefit from the one reliable component of the rotten grape; alcohol.

READ: American Wine Is Full of Poison

But, according to new research published in the Journal of Wine Economics, even alcohol content is not what it seems in the nebulous world of wine production, which might not be a bad thing, depending on what your goals are when drinking wine.

If your goal is to get drunk, then good news according to the wine researchers—it would seem that alcohol percentage in wine has been steadily rising in recent years. In other words, there is more alcohol in your wine than what producers are letting on.

What remains to be resolved is why consumers choose to pay winemakers to lie to them.

What intrigued the University of California researchers here was the apparent gap between labelling and the actual amount of alcohol found in wine, which, based on 127,406 wines tested by the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, Canada, from 1992 to 2009, may be significantly more than the amount advertised on labels.

Part of the reason for this discrepancy is regulation. Given the volatile nature of winemaking, American regulators allow a variation of 1.5 percentage points for wine with 14 percent alcohol by volume (ABV) or less, and 1 percentage point for wines with more that 14 percent ABV. The team speculated that another regulatory incentive for winemakers to fudge their ABV numbers would be to benefit from lower tax rates for wines that are under 14 percent alcohol by volume.

READ: Ladies, That Chardonnay Might Be Why You're an Emotional Wreck

Regulation aside, it would seem that producers and consumers are just as much to blame for the apparently widening gap between labels and reality. The UC Davis team found "systematic patterns" suggesting that rising wine alcohol content could be due to "producer responses to perceived market preferences for wines having more-intense flavours, possibly in conjunction with evolving climate."

The average alcohol content of wine, as calculated in the study, was 13.56 percent, yet the average reported alcohol content was 13.15 percent.

This difference might seem minuscule, but researchers suggest that winemakers are either too incompetent to calculate how much alcohol is in their product, or worse, that they are deliberately misleading consumers, which could have dangerous consequences.

"Even errors of this magnitude could lead consumers to underestimate the amount of alcohol they have consumed in ways that could have some consequences for their health and driving safety," the authors of the study wrote, all of which begs a larger question. "Winemakers err in the direction of providing consumers with what they appear to want. What remains to be resolved is why consumers choose to pay winemakers to lie to them."

While this remains unsolved, their study might help solve the mystery of why wine hangovers are particularly punishing.