Just because people are focusing more on healthy living doesn’t mean skipping out on glasses of wine at dinner. Thanks to low-alcohol wines, oenophiles can quench their thirst, while simultaneously accommodating their fitness and lifestyle goals.
It’s the equivalent of having your cake and eating it too, except with wine. And now that people are thinking about low alcohol, there are more options on the shelves than ever.
How a wine becomes low alcohol
The alcohol in wine has always varied, depending on the climate in which the grapes are grown and the style the producer was aiming for. The alcohol comes from the sugar that develops in the grapes as they ripen; during fermentation, the yeasts convert these sugars into alcohol. Grapes grown in warmer climates are generally higher in sugar, meaning the warmer the region, the stronger the final wine will be, assuming all that sugar is allowed to ferment. In general, producing dry wines with low alcohol in hot places is very difficult.
In cooler areas, the grapes are less likely to become very ripe, so they have less sugar available to ferment into alcohol. The grapes grown in the valleys of Vinho Verde in Portugal are a prime example.
“It’s typical of the Vinho Verde region to naturally produce wines in a lower alcohol range,” according to Anita Musi, fine wine specialist at Evaton, which represents Portuguese wines, including the winery Gazela. “The characteristics of the grapes that are planted share a common factor of being aromatic with lower sugar content and balanced acid, which naturally produces a low-alcohol wine.”
At 9% ABV, Gazela is made with grapes native to Portugal, including Loureiro, Pedernã, Trajadura, and Azal. Not only do the grapes produce lower-alcohol wines, but the final wine has mouthwatering acidity and a refreshing taste, with just a touch of sweetness. Not many regions can do this; the combination of climatic conditions and grape varieties has to be just right.
“The wine style that is being produced always depends on what the region itself has to offer — factors such as location, climate, altitude, soils, rainfall, and sunshine, among others,” Musi continues.
Cool climate regions
Wines from cool climate regions are experiencing a renaissance of sorts now that so many consumers are searching for lower-alcohol beverages; wines from the Finger Lakes in New York, Alto Adige in Italy, and countries like Austria and Germany, are increasing in popularity because of this.
The unique geography of the Mosel Valley in Germany, for example, is ideal for producing lower-alcohol Rieslings with an acidic zing. The almost vertical slate slopes protect the valley and store heat during the day, while releasing it at night. This fluke of topography means the Riesling grapes will ripen slowly, resulting in layers of flavor and acidity, but less alcohol.
Elevation or sea breeze influence can also cool the growing regions. In California, Kendall-Jackson’s master winemaker, Randy Ullom, credits coastal climates for the 9% ABV Chardonnays produced under the winery’s Avant Lower Calorie collection.
“All the fruit is from the coastal region of California, just north of San Francisco on the north coast to Monterey and Santa Barbara,” he says. “Having that as our base – with the cool climates moderated by the ocean – influences longer growing seasons, greater fruit, aromatics, and flavors in the grapes and ultimately in the wine, regardless of its alcohol content.”
For Kendall Jackson’s Avant collection, Ullom picks some grapes early on during harvest to ensure the fruit has higher acidity and lower sugar concentration. Later during harvest, he picks a second round of fully-ripe grapes that show the tropical fruit flavors that have made the winery’s California Chardonnays so popular. The grapes from both pickings are fermented separately before they’re blended together in one-year-old French oak barrels, which results in a low-alcohol wine that is structurally balanced and elegant, with a distinctive flavor.
The cooler climate also plays a part in Ullom’s ability to create wines with fewer calories for the Avant collection; grapes with less sugar in them not only produce lower-alcohol wines, they may also have less calories.
It’s very important to note, however, that this is not always the case. Many wines are lower in alcohol because the sugar in the grape wasn’t fully fermented, so the final wine is sweet. Moscato d’Asti from Italy, for example, can be around 5.5% ABV but is extremely sweet, while Rieslings from the Mosel can be made into highly sought-after, very luscious, dessert wines.
What to look for on the shelf
Wines from cooler climates, like Germany’s Mosel Valley and Portugal’s Vinho Verde, coastal California, Washington state and parts of Oregon, Central Otago in New Zealand, northern Spain and Champagne, France, are among the many regions known for their ability to produce wines with lower alcohol. But as climate change raises temperatures, even these cooler regions are now producing higher-alcohol wines.
Lower-alcohol wines definitely hit the mark for drinkers looking to cut back on their intake, but they’re also approachable wines that pair well with food and age gracefully.
In the market for a low-alcohol wine? Check out these bottles listed below.
5 low-alcohol wines to try:
With just 8.5% ABV, this Riesling from Mosel is a vibrant, aromatic, and vividly acidic wine that manages to balance out all its fresh minerality with a punch of stone fruit and floral flavor.
Ripe and refreshing, this wine clocks in at 9% ABV and only contains 85 calories and zero sugar, and yet the juicy flavors of Meyer lemon and pineapple still burst from the bottle.
Light and fizzy, Txakolina is a wine made in the Getaria region of northern Spain, amid the southern edge of the Bay of Biscay in Basque Country. It’s made with native Spanish grapes Hondarrabi Zuri, a white grape, and the red Hondarrabi Beltza. This rosé is one that doesn’t lack fruit despite its 11% ABV, this wine works just as well with soft cheeses as it does with grilled white meats and fish.