Director of Wine Pierre Mansour takes a deep-dive into a rapidly growing trend – low-alcohol wines.
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.
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%. Thinnerskinned 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
(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), try Drink'in
The Sun Alcohol Free Pale Ale
from Denmark, 33cl.
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 ranges 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.
Read more about alcohol levels in wine