For those brave souls that clicked on this to read more, stick with me – this won’t be full or moralising on the evils of alcohol or telling you to drink less. I’ll leave that to puritans and the government, respectively. Neither will I be looking at Weightwatchers or Slimming World branded wines which reportedly taste of goat’s piss. Having tasted neither the diet wines nor hircine urine this is hearsay, but I will leave that trial to others.
Instead I’d like to cover a few wines that I like which happen to be lower in alcohol than the 14%+ blockbusters which populate wine shelves nowadays. If you fancy a couple of glasses on a school night that won’t leave you with a heavy head in the morning, this is the way to go.
As a general rule, these wines are grown in relatively cool climates. The moderate sunshine means that grapes aren’t as high in sugar at harvest, but they should still have plenty of flavour. Lower alcohol is a finished wine is the result of lower sugar at harvest and / or fermentation being stopped by the winemaker before all the sugar has turned to alcohol, which obviously leaves some residual sweetness.
There are lots of other viticultural and vinification techniques which can be used to moderate alcohol levels, including:
- Picking early
- Canopy management
- Clonal selection
- Yeast selection
- Reverse osmosis
- Spinning cone
- Watering down (!)
So what should you try?
Many consider the Model to be the spiritual home of the Riesling grape. The cool climate imparts a fierce acidity to the wine, so fermentation is often stopped before all the sugar has turned to alcohol, leaving some to soften the affect of the acidity. Alcohol levels of 8% are not uncommon here – that’s half the abv of some blockbusters from Australia and California!
German (and Austrian) wines have a fairly complex quality hierarchy based on the sugar at the time of harvest, though the RS in the finished wine is more of a stylistic choice. If you see Trocken then the wine should taste pretty dry.
Hunter Valley Semillon
I have already established myself as a fan of this style, delicious as a fresh blast of lemon or as a mature, honey and toast loaded beauty. Alcohol levels here are usually between 10.0% and 11.5% – but they don’t feel to be lacking it when you drink them, the sign of a good, balanced wine.
McWilliams Mount Pleasant Elizabeth is a good entry level, though of course Tyrrell’s Vat 1 is the famous star of the area.
North and East of the Port producing region Douro, Vinho Verde produces light white, rosé and red wines. They exhibit fresh acidity and sometimes a light spritz and may not exceed 11.5% apart from one exception*. Vinho Verde doesn’t have the best reputation, but this is undeserved – the wines won’t be the most complex but they can be delightful in summer. Modern wine-making techniques have dramatically improved the average quality level.
*The exception is for Alvarinho (the same grape as Albariño just over the border into Galicia) from the areas around the town of Monção
Erm are we getting into Asti Spumante territory here? Yes we are! But don’t worry, like many bad memories of the ’70s, the modern truth is actually far more palatable than the shuddering recollections of the past.
This is a fizzy dessert wine made soley from the grapey grape, Moscato (often known as Muscat). It often clocks in as low as 5% so it’s the same as many beers, but please use a wine glass, not a pint glass!
North East Italian Reds
The twins of Valpolicella and the even lighter Bardolino are made from Corvina (great), Rondinella and Molinara (neither that great) in the Veneto area between Venice and Lake Garda. Nowadays the turbocharged Amarone della Valpolicella takes the column inches in wine reviews – and I happen to be a big fan – but at ~15% it doesn’t meet what we’re after here. The regular table wines can be very pleasant drinking but weighing in at 11.5% or so. There are unsubstantiated rumours that the beefier Valpolicella wines have been pumped up with stronger southern Italian reds, but surely the wine industry is free from adulteration nowadays??
Forrest Estate ‘The Doctors’
Forrest Estate in Marlborough was set up by the husband and wife team Dr John and Dr Brigid Forrest in 1988. As well as the usual grapes Marlborough fare they make wine with a few more unusual grapes. One of these is the Austrian black grape St Laurent which makes a light to medium bodied wine somewhere in between Pinot Noir and cool climate Syrah, though its parentage is still unproven. This comes under their sub brand The Doctors’ and has a lunchtime-friendly 11.0% on the label.
They also make a Riesling under this label which has a Mosel-like 8.5% – give it a try!
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