Lifestyle & opinion

Are low-alcohol wines any good?

Director of Wine Pierre Mansour takes a deep-dive into a rapidly growing trend – low-alcohol wines.

Are Low-Alcohol Wines Any Good?

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.

Australia's Hunter Valley
Perhaps counter-intuitively, the wines from Australia's Hunter Valley are often lower in alcohol (the region's famous semillons in particular), the grapes being picked earlier than elsewhere in Oz

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 southern hemisphere 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) and there are some notable successes in the alcohol-free spirits world too.

Gratien's alcohol-free sparkling wine, Gratien and Meyer Festillant Sans Alcool is consistently good and the exception to the rule.

Low & no alternative drinks

Our buying team has spent a good deal of time assessing and tasting low and no-alcohol wines, beers and spirits and have been most impressed by some of the alternative drinks in the market. We wanted to source a range of drinks that would appeal to wine drinkers in offering a degree of complexity and nuanced texture rather than simply be soft drinks for quaffing. Drinks made for sipping, not swigging and that can go with food too. Offering a range of grown-up low and no-alcohol alternatives is an important part of our sustainability strategy so that members can turn to these if they are looking to cut-down on alcohol consumption. They are also great for designated drivers of those who cannot drink alcohol for health reasons.

Explore our alcohol-free and low-alcohol drinks and our selection of wines below 11% alc. 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.

Tasting our low & no alcohol wines, beers and drinks range

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Video transcript

Hello, I'm Catherine from The Wine Society
and I'm here with Pierre and we're going to tell you
a little bit more about our new Low & No range.

More and more members have been asking
for more choice on alcohol-free and low-alcohol products.
And this year, the team of buyers,
we really looked outside of the box and really, quite simply,
with three criteria in mind.
One: quality.
Two: complexity. These had to have complex flavours.
And three: we wanted products that would entice you to sip
rather than gulp them down like soft drinks.

Absolutely, and really great with the responsible drinking as well.
If you're looking to cut down,
or perhaps you just happen to be the designated driver,
there's something for you.

Yes, and there's various categories here,
so members will see some of the well-known drinks,
like wine, spirits, beer with no alcohol.
But also we've introduced some kombuchas, these two here,
which are traditionally fermented, alcohol-free drinks.
And then we've got a couple of drinks
that are really quite adventurous, quite progressive, groundbreaking.
Designed very much with the wine drinker in mind.


This is You + I Lime Sea Salt Kombucha,
an ancient tea-based drink that is fermented,
but it produces no alcohol.
It's got a lovely colour.
Really lovely colour.
The lime on the nose and then on a palate is so refreshing.
Lovely bit of grip as well.
That tannin from the tea coming through.
Yeah, it's wonderful, isn't it? Slightly sparkling.
The salt is smoked sea salt, so it gives this sort of smoky feel to it.
And I would serve this slightly cool straight from the fridge.
And as an aperitif, it'd be perfect as an alternative
if you're a designated driver or you're looking to moderate your alcohol.
So cheers.
Cheers.

Here we've got Spark, Blurred Vines, which is made in England.
It's a plant-based brew.
Got this wonderful sort of colour, slightly amber, slightly pink.
Beautiful.
It's got really interesting nose, hasn't it?
It's really fruity, but there's something a little bit I can't quite place.
There's some herbal elements to it as well.
And it's got energy, hasn't it?
A real sort of lift and energy.
It's dry, a little bit of fizz.
Importantly, some tannin.
So like red wine, would go really well with food.
Absolutely. That fizz.
So you'd want to serve it chilled.
But it does also have that little bit of heat, doesn't it, as you're swallowing.
So it's just like you would with an alcoholic drink.
It does mean you're going to sip the drink rather than just gulp it down.
This stopped us in our tracks when we were first tasting it,
and I hope it does with members too.

Here we have Festillant from Gratien and Meyer,
a name that many members know,
sparkling wine specialists in the Loire and in Champagne.
We're in real safe hands with these producers
and it's got a lovely aroma of green fruits,
a lot of floral there as well.
It's lovely and fresh.
Yeah, and it's got that lovely kind of wine character to it.
It's got nice gentle sparkle from the fermentation in the bottle,
and it finishes whistle clean and is ever so easy to drink.

Here we have Three Spirit Nightcap,
a digestif-style drink that is unfiltered
so has this natural, cloudy appearance.
We're serving it here on ice.
It's got these incredible flavours of sort of
cedar wood and tobacco and liquorice.
It's really warming. It's got a really nice citrus lift to it.
There's also a bit of a nuance, an umami
sort of richness there, and a bit of depth.
Really nice sipping drink.
Absolutely, and a nice sort of hit of spice on the finish.
This is also delicious served long with ginger beer.

The Wine Society is proud of our range
and I do hope that members approach these with the same curiosity
as you do our wines.
We'd love to know what you think,
so head on to our Community and social media channels and let us know.
These are all about flavours and some new flavours,
and as wine lovers, flavours really matter,
so do give them a try.

Pierre Mansour

Director of Wine

Pierre Mansour

Pierre joined the Buying Team in 2003 and was promoted to the position of head of buying in 2017. He is responsible for Spain and Lebanon.

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