Saturday 22 October 2016

Sore head? Wine contains more alcohol than manufacturers claim

Winemakers willfully mislead consumers by changing the percentage of alcohol on bottle labels

Sarah Knapton

Published 30/12/2015 | 08:07

Spilled wine
Spilled wine

If you are struggling with a hangover this morning, it might not be entirely your own fault.

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Wine has more alcohol in than manufacturers claim, putting drinkers’ health at risk and raising the chance of being over the drink-driving limit.

Academics at the University of California took samples from nearly 100,000 bottles of wine across the world and discovered that the alcohol content in nearly 60 per cent was an average of 0.42 per cent higher than stated on the label.

And it appears that winemakers are entirely aware of the discrepancy. They admitted to the researchers that they alter the percentage to meet customers’ expectations of how strong a bottle of alcohol should be.

Al fresco wine
Al fresco wine

Overall the study showed that Chilean and Spanish reds had the biggest margin of error between what percentage is stated on the bottle and what the wine actually contains. Chilean and American white wine were also among the worst offenders.

“A discrepancy of 0.4 percentage points might not seem large relative to an actual value of 13.6 per cent alcohol by volume, but 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,” said lead author Professor Julian Alston, of the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of California Davis.

“In particular instances the discrepancies could be much larger than average.

“An average error of 0.4 percentage points is much more significant compared with the typical range for wines in a particular category, for instance, Napa Valley Cabernet might be expected to have alcohol content within the range of 13.5–14.5 per cent alcohol by volume, and an average error of 0.4 percentage points is large in the context of this range."

Researchers said they found a ‘tendency to overstate the alcohol content for wine that has relatively low actual alcohol, and a tendency to understate the alcohol content for wine that has relatively high alcohol content.’

Alcohol charities said they were worried that winemakers were wilfully misleading the public for profit and called on the government to do more to stop the practice.

Why your bottle could tip you over the limit - the worst offenders:


Tom Smith, Director of Campaigns at Alcohol Concern, said: “We need the Government to ensure accurate health warnings on alcohol products are made mandatory, as is standard practice in other countries.

“The public should be able to make informed choices about their health and drinkers have a right to know what they’re consuming.

Balance is the key when matching drink to food
Balance is the key when matching drink to food

“For consumers to be fully informed, every alcohol label should include an evidence-based health warning about the risks of drinking, as well as describing the product’s nutritional, calorific and alcohol unit content.”

Currently the HSE warns that women should drink no more than 11 standard drinks in a week which should be spaced out and not consume in one sitting.  A standard drink is a pub measure of spirits (35.5ml), a small glass of wine (12.5% volume), a half pint of normal beer, an alcopop (275ml bottle).  Men should drink o more than 17 standard drinks in a week.

Most wines fall directly on the 12-13 per cent margin so mislabelling could falsely reassure drinkers they are drinking less. It means a woman would probably be over the limit for both driving and good health if she drank a 250ml glass of the average American, Chilean, Argentinian or Spanish red wine.

The academics also warn that, in general, the percentage of wines across the world has risen by an average of two percentage points in the past 18 years. At the beginning of the study, the team speculated that global warming may be responsible but after matching data to climate models across the world they found only a small link. They suggest that it is a growing trend for more intense wines, which consequently are more alcoholic, that is driving the rise.

“Our findings lead us to think that the rise in alcohol content of wine is primarily man-made,” said Prof Alston.

“Discrepancies between label claims and actual alcohol content of wine suggests that in many places the rise in alcohol content of wine is a nuisance consequence of choices made by producers in response to evolving demand for wine having more intense, riper flavours

“The substantial, pervasive, systematic errors in the stated alcohol percentage of wine are consistent with a model in which winemakers perceive that consumers demand wine with a stated alcohol content that is different from the actual alcohol content.

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

The research was published in the Journal of Wine Economics.

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