In life we are usually urged to keep raising the bar, but in this case here’s where it may help to lower the bar.
As Chubby Checker asked in his 1962 hit Limbo Rock, “how low can you go?”, when it comes to drinking low alcohol wine, the answer is as low as you would like without compromising taste and flavour. At long last there are some drinkable, low (lower) alcohol wines on the market.
Come spring and the social season leading to Christmas, New Year and summer holidays, we collectively quaff an extra glass or two of celebratory wine, be it a bubbly, white, rosé or light red. Or, for those who can afford it, an extra flute or two of champagne. However, over-indulgence in the form of excessive alcohol consumption can come at a price, especially if you are partial to a big-bodied red to go with your barbecued steak, more so if you have to drive afterwards.
Interestingly, it’s not the special event or occasional celebratory indulgence that catches many of us out, rather it’s the everyday, after work pick-me-up, or habitual glass or two when preparing dinner that’s often the insidious culprit. Also given that many live alone, the loneliness of the long distance wine imbiber comes into play.
This is where the growing popularity of lower alcohol wine comes in – currently there are about 85 million worldwide who prefer to occasionally drink less alcoholic wine and here in Australia low alcohol wines account for $44 million per annum in off-premise sales, larger than the total rosé market.
Traditionally many Australian red wines contain between 12.5% and 14.5% alcohol by volume (ABV) with whites averaging 12 to 12.5 per cent – so for me any wine below 10.5% is a lower alcohol wine, and any wine with a 9% and below is a low alcohol one.
This begs the question: just how low in alcohol can you go without compromising taste and flavour? I suggest 5% is as low as you can go with the majority of the emerging light wines now hitting the market coming in at between 7.5% (for whites) and 9.5% for reds.
Then again all this ABV stuff may be irrelevant to many a white wine drinker used to diluting alcohol by drinking Spritzers (white wine mixed with soda or sparkling water).
Spritzers aside, the demand for low alcohol or light wine continues to grow. Till recently, the winemaking conundrum revolved around how to reduce alcohol without sacrificing taste or flavour – the two are inextricably linked – alcohol imparts flavour, the greater the alcohol content, the more intense the flavour.
However early attempts to make and market them floundered as they were often tasteless, watery, flavourless, and insipid alternatives masquerading as wine. Thankfully these execrable offerings are progressively being replaced by an ever-growing range of lower alcohol, refreshing wines that actually taste like wine as opposed to grape juice.
Now thanks to a reverse osmosis process, wine is pressure filtered through a fine porous membrane using less heat than earlier distillation techniques, thus preserving flavour and balance much more successfully. Flavour, structure, balance and length are the hallmarks of a quality wine. Also harvesting cool climate grapes earlier (with lower sugar levels) results in naturally lower alcohol content without loss of flavour.
Today there is a growing range of quality, flavoursome, palatable light wines with finesse and balance on the market.
Here are a few of my favourites:
Lindeman’s Early Harvest wines including a non-vintage Sparkling, a Sparkling Rosé, a Chardonnay, a Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc blend and a newly released Pinot Grigio – all of which they claim are at least 25% lighter in alcohol and calories when compared to comparable wines.
They also make an Early Harvest Moscato; a Sweet Red and a Shiraz.
Then there are the McWilliam’s Balance wines which are exclusively endorsed by Weight Watchers, and finally there is a label called Miranda Summer Light which includes a Brut Cuvee, Sauvignon Blanc and Shiraz.
Other low-alcohol labels include First Cape, Gallo and Banrock Station.
Importantly, the increasing demand for lower-alcohol wine is partly driven by their obvious health benefits in that they diminish the risk of alcohol-associated health issues and they are also lower in calories.
Also light wines are popular among drivers who want to say below blood alcohol limit. But despite all this, there’s still much to be done to make a lower alcohol or light wine that is “essentially indistinguishable from the full alcoholic strength equivalent table wine” – but at long last we are getting there.
What wine do you enjoy? Do you like a lower alcohol wine or full? Do you mind sacrificing a bit of the taste? Tell us below.