TWENTY FIVE YEARS AGO, the average alcohol level of table wine was 12.5%. Since then, as warmer regions have entered the fray, and winemakers everywhere have improved site selection, grape strain and winemaking methods, alcohol levels have risen inexorably. Drinkers who like to limit their weekly intake to the prescribed units of alcohol, have become aware that a wine of, say, 14.5% alcohol by volume, can add at least one extra alcohol unit to the bottle. That’s not always what they want, especially mid week, or if there are only two people drinking the wine.
Some wine suppliers now offer a small range of whites and reds at around 5.5% and 8% alcohol respectively. To get a conventional wine down to 5.5%, a maker can simply not ferment much of the sugar that’s in the grape juice. However, this can result in a very sweet and potentially unstable, wine. Alternatively, alcohol can be reduced, using a device called a spinning cone. This fractionates the wine, so that alcohol can be removed. Generally, only a portion of the overall batch of wine is subjected to the treatment and the lower alcohol portion blended back into the rest. Filtration methods, chiefly reverse osmosis, can also reduce alcohol levels, by passing wine through a complex membrane system so that alcohol components are left behind.
How do such wines taste? From what I have been able to judge, through admittedly limited tasting, the reduction of a New World Chardonnay, say, from 14% to 12%, will generally make the wine fresher tasting but still feel acceptable to the palate. Much beyond that though, and wines can taste both sweeter and tarter at the same time, giving a lack of balance to the flavour, often with hollowness at mid palate and a slightly confected quality. This is largely because alcohol masks both sugars and acidity and makes them feel more integrated.
I’ve tried Australian shiraz, reduced from around 14.5% to 11%, and it tasted pleasant, with more fresh berry than usual, though lacking a certain weight. I’ve also sampled a few 8% merlots which felt quite confected. If I were to guess, I would think that you can reduce the alcohol level of a wine by around 20% without too much noticeable palate effect, but reducing it by more than that can lead to a loss of vinosity – that is, the wine may taste less like a wine and more like a fruit drink. For my own part, I have never tasted a dry white wine at 5.5% or a red at 8%, from naturally high alcohol grapes, which I found appealing.
Legally, there is confusion about such products. In Europe, wine regulations stipulate that wine must be at least 9% alcohol (unless it is Californian), although there are exceptions for traditional low alcohol wines such as German sweets and Italy’s Asti. While bureaucrats ponder the need for amended regulation, it remains to be seen whether consumers will opt for such wines on a significant scale.
Meanwhile, retailers can direct interested customers toward naturally lower alcohol wines. Australian semillons from makers like McWilliams and Denman come in at between 10% and 12%, depending on vintage, most Italian prosecco is around 11%, German riesling can be as little as 7%, depending on the sweetness level that’s preferred, and Italian Asti is generally around 5.5%. When it comes to red, many wines from Bordeaux, Cotes de Thongues, Loire Valley, northern Italy and northern Spain are less than 12.5% alcohol by volume. Think Beaujolais, Bardolino and Vinho Verde.
Some producers may respond to consumer demand by harvesting a little earlier. This can result in slightly “greener” wines, but there are, nevertheless, a lot of big, high-alcohol, almost port-like wines which would actually benefit, in flavour and balance, from an earlier pick.
And one, can after all, drink a little less. Matching each glass of wine with a glass of water, as many continental Europeans do,
will stretch out a bottle nicely, as well as being better for your health. Personally, I would rather go this way than rely on the spinning cone!