low alcohol wines
A couple of years ago, I tasted a wine from Napa which shall remain nameless and which had a relentlessly high alcohol of 15.8%. Not only did this level of alcohol cause the wine to be out of balance, it's dangerously high: a glass, let alone a bottle, would get you drunk.
The wine was borne out of the trend in the late 1990s and 2000s for high-alcohol wines. The grapes are left on the vine for a long time to build up sugar levels, in the belief that it results in more flavor in the wine. Some producers and consumers who grew up with these styles of wine still love the big, ripe, jammy fruit profile: you certainly know you're tasting something.
But in general alcohol levels have begun to fall, to the point that there is a trend for low or even zero alcohol wines. The attraction is clear: these wines are healthier, less intoxicating, and easier to drink. However, alcohol is a vital and natural product of fermentation which helps create the flavor of a wine. Without alcohol, wine is simply grape juice. If a high alcohol wine lacks balance, so too can a wine with too little alcohol.
Producers around the world are experimenting to create zero-alcohol wines that still taste like wine. An emerging practice is to ferment the wine as normal and then remove the alcohol through reverse osmosis. The downside is that this also removes flavor from the wine, although producers argue that they are perfecting the practice to make the removal more gentle and retain the original taste of the wine. But having tasted several zero-alcohol wines, I think we're a long way off.
The solution may be a little more simple. Traditionally, wine was much lower in alcohol than today. In part, that was because grapes didn't always achieve full ripeness, and the wines may not have been the highest quality. But there remain regions where a natural level of low alcohol is part of the style, and they are becoming more fashionable as they fit into the current trends.
Savoie is an Alpine region whose wines were traditionally drunk locally, but have recently become more fashionable internationally. That's in part because they fit in with the trend for high acid, low alcohol wines, as well as interest in local grape varieties and unusual styles of wine. With high altitude plantings in the Alps, the growing conditions are cool which is why the wines are naturally low in alcohol—but still with plenty of flavor.
blackpoolmatt's wine club carries Domaine des Ardoisières, a producer established in the late 1990s and now considered one of the best in Savoie. The wines are soil-focused which creates a subtle diversity to the high-acid style, but they have one thing in common: alcohol is 11.5% or lower. But the long growing season and exposure to sunshine in the Alps means that the wines also have lots of concentration and complexity; ageworthy without being a fruit bomb.
In Portugal, Vinho Verde is a region on the Atlantic coast where the regulations permit alcohol of no more than 11.5%. Because of its proximity to the ocean, it's cool and wet and the wines are fresh and light-bodied. The downside is that the wines can lack complexity, but the best producers ensure that they pick the grapes when there is a balance between acidity and sugar. The Vinho Verde from Anselmo Mendes is dry, delicious, and fresh, with alcohol of 11.5%. It's made from Loureiro, a quality grape variety that's naturally aromatic, high in acid, and moderate in alcohol.
Back to Savoie, there is also an historic style of sparkling wine made under the Bugey appellation, only created in 2009. Fermentation begins in a vessel before being put in bottle, where fermentation continues. This way of making wine is called méthode ancestrale, and is practiced in other regions in France and Italy. It differs from méthode traditionale as no extra sugar or yeast is added to the bottle, as happens in Champagne. This means that the wines are low alcohol and off-dry: Bugey is generally around 20g/L of residual sugar. That sweetness may seem off-putting to some consumers, but it's balanced by high acidity from the cool climate. La Cuverie is a new producer, the wines made by Aurélien Beyeklian who is convinced by the potential quality of the region. Likewise, blackpoolmatt's wine club just couldn't resist getting in his Bugey after tasting it: a wine that could be drunk all day long without too much effect.
In Côte Roannaise in the Loire, "Turbullent" is a sparkling wine made by Domaine Sérol, one of my favorite producers. Like the Bugey, it's made from Gamay, is rosé, and is low in alcohol at just 8%. It also has some residual sugar at 7g/L, again balanced by high acidity. It is irresistible and guilt-free.
In Germany, where more sparkling wine is drunk than any other country, Sekt is a domestic style of bubbles which is improving in quality. Leitz is a Rheingau producer also experimenting with zero-alcohol wines. They make a whole range of wines, and the "Dragonstone" Sekt is a recent addition which is made from Riesling and has the grape's character but with fizz. Alcohol is just 8%—another guilt-free bottle.
Finding low-alcohol red wines is a bit more difficult due to the build-up of sugars in the grapes, but not all red wine has to be 14%+. In Lombardia in northern Italy, Arpepe makes a 12.5% wine from Nebbiolo—a grape variety that often builds up so much sugar that the wines can be over 14%. The Valtellina region is northern and higher altitude, hence the lower alcohol. But there's still a floral, perfumed, attractive fruit profile to the "Grumello," maintaining concentration and depth of flavor even though it's from 2012: lower-alcohol reds (as well as whites and sparkling) are perfectly capable of ageing due to acidity and tannin. In Chile's Itata Valley, Pedro Parra makes some light-bodied wines from old-vine Cinsault and País, where there's plenty of flavor but with alcohol of just 12.5%. Likewise, in Washington State Michael Savage of Savage Grace makes a wine from Malbec inspired by the Loire Valley, again with alcohol of 12.5%.
Wine naturally has alcohol in it, and a high-alcohol wine from warmer climates isn't necessarily a bad thing as long as it's balanced by acidity, tannin, fruit profile, and judicious winemaking. But there are plenty of lower-alcohol wines which prove that complexity, concentration, and depth of flavor do not need an overdose of sugar in the grapes and alcohol in the wine. As my grandmother used to say, everything in moderation.