The question of quality in low-alcohol wines demands more than a simple 'yes' or 'no' answer.
According to The Oxford Companion to Wine, alcohol is 'an important, intoxicating constituent of wine and all other alcoholic drinks'. Ethanol, often called simply 'alcohol', is colourless and odourless but can have considerable impact on how a liquid tastes. Of course, alcohol plays a part in the joy of drinking wine; it makes sharing moments with friends and family convivial and memorable. Alcohol also adds roundness and mouthfeel, contributing to a sense of 'fullness' and body.
Most wines today have an alcoholic strength of between 12.5% and 15% – just 30 years ago, the range was considerably lower. Climate change coupled with improved vine-growing methods means riper, healthier grapes with more flavour and more sugar, which converts to higher levels of alcohol during fermentation. In part, it's this ripeness and generosity that has transformed the quality of wines globally since the 1980s.
Naturally low-alcohol wines
Some of the world's greatest white wines are naturally low in alcohol: the dry, steely whites of the Hunter Valley in Australia, from early-harvested grapes, range from 10-11.5% abv, as do those from Atlantic-influenced Vinho Verde in Portugal and Gascony in France, not to mention English still wines grown in our maritime climate. Some sweet wines also tend to be naturally lower in alcohol. Germany's exquisite rieslings, ranging from dry to fully sweet styles, energise and refresh with delicate alcohol levels that reach just 10%. Try Ruppertsberger Hoheburg Riesling Kabinett with its delicious succulent peach fruit.
Sparkling wines are often also naturally low, seldom exceeding 12.5% (dry styles) and Italy's sweeter speciality Moscato d'Asti is a joy to drink at just 5.5%. But finding decent red wines below 12% is a challenge.
Black grapes need to fully ripen because the grape skins play an important role in contributing to the colour, flavour and structure of red wines. Growers in cooler spots, such as those at high altitude or in marginal climates, can succeed in crafting reds with lighter alcoholic strengths, but not often lower than 12%. Thinner skinned grapes like gamay and pinot noir can be a good bet, or for something more esoteric, try Austria's red-fruit packed zweigelt grape.
Finding the balance
Like so many things in life, it's a question of balance. Outstanding fine wines from the Rhône (Châteauneuf-du-Pape), Spain (Ribera del Duero), Italy (Chianti) and the new world hit alcohol contents of 14 to 15% yet the wines taste harmonious. Quality is a function of balance, fruit intensity and complexity, not necessarily the alcohol level.
De-alcoholised wines and beers
If a winemaker wants to remove alcohol from a wine, there are several methods, with varying degrees of success; these processes sometimes also remove the aromatics and flavours that make wine such a pleasure to drink to begin with. The expensive and often heavy-handed industrial processes used to produce many 'no-alcohol' wines is probably why it's rare we find any that meet The Society's high quality standards. More successful, though, is de-alcoholised beer (there's less alcohol to remove therefore less impact on the taste).
Gratien's alcohol-free sparkling wine, Gratien and Meyer Festillant Sans Alcool is consistently good and the exception to the rule. So too are Jukes Cordialities 3cl, a brilliant new drink that mimics the taste and complexity of wine, produced from fruit and vegetable extracts and naturally alcohol-free. So while it's true that lower-alcohol wines can be very good, especially whites and fizz, you should do your research when venturing into the world of de-alcoholised; the quality of the final product is most often disappointing.
Explore our alcohol-free and low-alcohol drinks or try our Wine Without Fuss Lighter Wines case for regular deliveries of lower-alcohol wines. For more information about alcohol units and drink-free days, visit drinkaware.co.uk.