The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - The Telegraph Magazine
The low-down on lower-alcohol wine
Do you check the alcohol percentage (abv – alcohol by volume) of a wine before you buy? If so, you are not alone. ‘Slightly lower alcohol is one of the two biggest trends we are dealing with in wine,’ says Patrick Mcgrath, CEO of wine importer Hatch Mansfield (the other, in case you are wondering, is ‘managing limitations on stock’, including those caused by current shortages of Champagne and burgundy).
It might not sound as if there’s much point in switching down from, say, 14.5% to 13%, but many of those who enjoy wine are seeking to lower their alcohol intake by streamlining drinking habits. Opening wine, say, three times a week instead of five, and drinking the same amount of a wine that’s a slightly lower abv can cut the amount of alcohol you consume in half. Simply going for a slightly bigger reduction in abv, from 15% to 12.5%, can reduce your alcohol consumption by 16.7%. I say ‘can’ because, first, this only applies if you don’t drink more to compensate for the lower alcohol and, second, because while wine is labelled in steps of 0.5% for abv there is a legal tolerance of 0.5% on the actual versus the labelled alcohol level. This tolerance protects producers from fluctuations caused by different lab analyses, but it does mean that a wine labelled with an abv of 12.5% could actually be virtually 13%.
It used to be that those looking for ‘slightly lower’ alcohol wines would be best advised to scan the shelves for European bottles. That’s no longer the case. The combination of a changing climate and a taste for reds that are smooth and not astringent means that wines from France frequently top 14%. Wines from the Iberian peninsula go there even more often.
Meanwhile, in countries such as Argentina, Australia, South Africa and even Chile, a maturing wine culture has precipitated a transition, at least among some producers, from wines that are big, bold and bright to wines that are finer-boned and more transparent. Making wines with lower alcohol means harvesting grapes with lower sugar levels. To this end, vines are planted at higher altitudes and in cooler-climate regions, allowing them to ripen more slowly and achieve flavour and phenolic ripeness at lower sugar levels. Viticultural techniques can help with this too. Similarly, the old assumption that drinking white wine rather than red will guarantee a relatively low abv no longer holds. I often taste sauvignon blanc or pinot gris from New Zealand with an abv of 14%.
All this is to say: don’t restrict yourself to a set of grapes or regions, although you can count on finding a lowish Muscadet because wines from this appellation are not allowed to be made with an abv of more than 12%. And they are dry. But, in general, if you want dry and you want low, each wine needs to be assessed individually. These days it’s even possible to find good malbec from Argentina at 13.5%.
Interested in shaving the alcohol level still further? Then look out for The Doctors’ 9.5% wines from Marlborough in New Zealand. There is a notquite-dry sauvignon blanc (Majestic, Tesco, Waitrose, around £10) and a lovely, crunchy pinot noir (drydrinker. com, £14.81). Both these have been so warmly embraced that the producer now makes almost three times as much wine now as it did pre-pandemic.