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Low alcohol wines

Tom Cannavan, 01/2010

Opening a newspaper in the first few days of a new year can be a depressing business. The pages are filled with detox advice, diet regimes and battle cries to leave the excesses of Christmas behind - mainly eating, drinking and most of life's pleasures...

I know quite a few wine lovers who try to have a 'detox January', giving up booze for the month. But as well as this seasonal instinct to cut-back, it seems many people are looking to reduce their alcohol intake. Alcohol levels in wine have undoubtedly crept up, with the average bottle probably around 13% or 13.5% alcohol by volume (ABV). With government guidelines on safe 'units' of alcohol just one factor influencing a movement towards healthier lifestyles, producers and retailers have not been slow to tap into this new zeitgeist.   

The category of low alcohol wines is still small, but showing rapid percentage growth. Tesco lists 39 low alcohol wines, from the 1% ABV Sutter Home 'Fre' merlot, through specially formulated products like McGuigan's '9.5 Chardonnay' to naturally low alcohol wines like their Finest Denman Vineyard Semillon at 10.5% ABV.

Look for more and more wines hitting the shelves at around 9 - 9.5% ABV, as a slew of new product announcements has hit my inbox recently. These wines tend to have their alcohol reduced either using technology (machines which filter or vapourise alcohol out of the wine) or by harvesting grapes early, and often blending a little unfermented grape juice back in to dilute the alcohol in the wine.

The companies producing these wines - and those supplying the technology - insist their methods remove alcohol but otherwise leave the wine unimpaired. As a wine lover my response may be predictable, but it is based on fairly extensive tasting of a dozen of these products: none of them are great wines, and they barely pass muster as good wines. If I was asked simply to recommend a wine at these price points, none of the reduced alcohol efforts would be in the frame. However, if people are specifically looking to drink dry wines at 9% alcohol or lower for personal reasons, there are some accetable products around.

nature verses nurture

Again, it might be what you'd expect me to say, but there is a whole world of excellent, natural wines out there which fall into the low-ish alcohol category at 11% ABV or less. Many wines from northern European vineyards like Champagne, northern Italy and Germany fall at 11% or lower. In Australia, varieties like Semillon and Riesling often come in around the same levels. With a little careful research it is possible to switch to delicious, full-flavoured natural wines that also keep a lid on alcohol levels (particularly whites).

sparkling wine

Sovio, Sparkling White Zinfandel, USA
A bench-mark product, because Sovio recently won a battle to gain its listing, when the High Court over-turned a ban placed by the UK Food Standards Agency in 2007. The FSA had stopped sales of the wine because it was "made using an unauthorised technique" (the 'spinning cone' method). In October 2008 the European Commission agreed that European Union wines that use experimental techniques to reduce the alcohol content could be marketed across Europe as long as producers followed a number of conditions. Sovio is a sweet, carbonated, low-alcohol 'blush' Zinfandel in which alcohol is reduced to just 5.5%. It has a bright crimsony-pink colour and a fairly neutral nose hinting at strawberries and cream. On the palate the gentle effervescence is refreshing, but the wine doesn't taste of terribly much. There's nothing unpleasant and the finish is close to dry. £4.99, Tesco.

white wines

Torres, Natureo Free 2008, Spain
At only 0.5% ABV, this new 'wine' from Torres (not officially a wine in the EU) is made from the Moscatel grape. The wine is made normally then goes through a special technology called 'rotating cone column' that separates out the alcohol, which is then removed from the wine. An average glass of wine has around 90-100 calories, this has only around 15 - 20. The nose has excellent Muscat character with flowers, spices and an intense grapey, peachy ripeness. On the palate it tastes rather more like grape juice than wine, but there is a fruitiness and bit of tang that would make it a good substitute for those looking to (more or less) avoid all alcohol. £6.12 - £6.29, www.vintagemarque.com, www.sohowine.co.uk.

Giardini, Tai / Pinot Grigio 2008, Italy
One of a pair of wines, white and red, at 9.5% ABV. 'Tai' is in fact a new name for the grape formerly known as Tocai (before this was outlawed in Italy in favour of Hungary's exclusive claim to the Tocai/Tokaji name). This wine, naturally low in alcohol through a combination of early harvesting and blending in some unfermented grape juice, has a vivid aroma of fresh pears on the nose, with light, floral touches. On the palate it is perhaps a touch under-fruited, with a crisp, cool core of lemon and apple, and good acidity, but maybe just lacking a bit of crunch and vitality. Still, a decent effort this and easily drinkable if you are a Pinot Grigio fan. £4.99, Marks & Spencer.

Domaines Auriol, So'Light Terret Sauvignon, France
A non-vintage Vin de Pays d'Oc white at 9% alcohol made using reverse osmosis (a sophisticated filtering) and containing around 60 calories per glass. There's a pleasantly fruity, apple and lightly tropical aroma, leading on to a palate which again is just slightly dulled, with quite crisp lemon and apple fruit that is fresh and really quite tasty. This product has no UK listing at present.

Castillo De Andaluz, Airen Sauvignon Blanc 2008, Spain
There's a natural 11% ABV in this blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Airen - Spain's most planted white grape. This has a fresh, zippy, passionfruit nose with a peachy softness and hint of grassy background. On the palate it is bright and crisp, with crunchy lime acidity and lots of fresh, vibrant fruit. Balanced and quite long, this has good personality at a budget price. £4.99, Oddbins.

Esk Valley, Black Label Riesling 2005, New Zealand
This Riesling from the 2005 vintage has a fair bit of age under its belt. That has helped accentuate a certain Paraffin waxiness on the nose, with all sorts of mineral and citrus aromas mixing in a heady cocktail. On the palate this is just off-dry in a Kabinett style (10.5% alcohol) with vivid lime and red apple fruit coming through with sweetness and a certain ripeness, but the picture nicely balanced by a big core of lemon pith acidity. Around £9.50, see all stockists on wine-searcher.com

Gunderloch, Fritz's Riesling 2008, Germany
A Rheinhessen wine at 10.5% ABV from young winemaker Charlotte Hess, who brings experience from Australia to the Gunderloch family's operation, and her influence might be behind the screwcaps across the estate's range. This QbA wine has stony, gently nutty, apple skin and pear aromas. The palate is nicely off-dry, with a lovely peachy sweetness and hint of that downy, soft character against really crisp, lime zest acidity. Long and beautifully pitched. Buy two bottles for £7.49 each until end February 2010. £8.99, Majestic.

Peter Lehmann, 'Wigan' Eden Valley Riesling 2003, Australia
Good enough for me to award it "Wine of the Week", this exceptional Riesling falls naturally at just 11% alcohol and offers brilliant drinking: it has the lime cordial purity that's typical of Eden Valley, with nuances of flowers, orange peel and minerals, with the early signs of waxy maturity. In the mouth it is scintillating stuff, with fat, dry, limey fruit but riven with precise acidity and shimmering length. This is delicious but will also cellar for many years. £16.99, Oddbins (£13.59 as part of a mixed case).

red wines

Domaines Auriol, So'Light Merlot, France
Red partner to the Terret Sauvignon and with the same 9% alcohol, there's a crisp, Beaujolais-like fruitiness to this, with some red fruit aromas. On the palate it is fairly smooth and easy to drink, with a cherry and red plum fruitiness and a low acid, low tannin finish. Pleasant stuff, which damns with faint praise I know, but for those looking specifically for alcohol levels this low, more than acceptable. No UK listing at present.

Giardini, Merlot 2008, Italy
There aren't nearly so many red wines around at low alcohol levels. This 9.5% partner to the white above has pleasant, light, slightly floral aromas with a touch of cherry and red plum. On the palate a light-bodied, but smooth textured wine. Quite a bit of sweetness here that makes it easy to sip, with soft strawberry fruitiness and a lightweight touch of tannin. Not complex but quaffable. £5.99, Marks & Spencer

Sepp Moser, Sepp Zweigelt 2007, Austria
This wine (11.5%) is grown and made biodynamically, though not yet certified as such. It is tight, mineral and dry on the nose, with a slightly bubblegum quality and black olive character. The palate is bone dry and a touch inky, but has good black fruit. The antithesis of 'fruit bomb', though there is a broadening core to the wine and a rich, tangy and almost chocolatey finish. Around £7.50, see all stockists on wine-searcher.com.