An Easy Guide to Choosing Lower Alcohol Wines

The feasting and festivities of the holidays is over. Having over-indulged, many of us have made resolutions to cut back on or cut out certain foods and alcohols during January. So how can we reduce our alcohol intake, whilst still enjoying a glass or two of wine?

Obviously, one way to cut back on alcohol intake is to stop drinking it. However, if like me you enjoy the way wine enhances food, and vice versa, here are some options.

Look out for lower alcohol wines. All wine is obliged to state the alcohol level on the label. Unfortunately, whether by design or by default, it is usually written in a teeny weenie sized font, and obscurely placed on the label, making it a real challenge to find. But persevere, it is there!

About alcohol and wine

The alcohol level of a wine is its alcoholic strength. The degree of alcohol is equivalent to its percentage by volume and is often referred to as ‘abv’ (alcohol by volume). Wine alcohol levels are related to the amount of sugar that has accumulated in the grapes at harvest time. The higher the sugar levels the higher the potential alcohol. Potential alcohol meaning, the alcohol level if the wine is fermented to dryness, whereby all the grape sugars are converted to alcohol.

Of course, alcohol levels can be managed and/or manipulated during the winemaking process. For example, the fermentation can be stopped (or stop naturally) before all the sugars have been converted into alcohol, resulting in a lower final alcohol, and an off-dry or sweet wine. Many high-volume mass-market wines have their alcohol levels reduced using sophisticated technologies for removing alcohol.

Lower-alcohol wines

That said, there are still many wines that are naturally lower in alcohol, with no manipulation involved.

Firstly, grapes grown in moderate and cooler climates will tend to have lower alcohol levels. Secondly certain grape varieties can achieve full physiological ripeness, without escalating sugar levels. Thirdly, even in warmer climates, grapes grown at higher altitudes can also have lower alcohol levels.

Knowing the alcoholic strength of the wine you are drinking is really quite important. There is a significant difference in the amount of alcohol consumed between a few glasses of wine at 15% abv, and a few glasses at 10% or 11%. Today, more and more wines are upwards of 14% abv, with some particularly ripe and concentrated wines reaching almost port-like values. While one or two percent difference might not seem much, the effect on your body can be significant.

I consider 12.5% abv for white and 13% for reds to be the baseline; above these levels are the higher alcohol wines and below are the lower alcohol wines.

Certain wine styles and/or wine regions are known for producing lower alcohol wines such as:

German Riesling - Kabinett, Spatlese and Auslese – Rieslings are fantastic. Off-dry, but balanced with crisp acidity these wines generally range from 7 to 9% abv. Additionally many dry (Trocken) Riesling from the Mosel and other German wine regions register below 12%.

Hunter Valley Semillon from Australia – Hunter Semillon is truly the unsung hero of Australian white wines. We tend to think of Australian wines as high in alcohol. Next time check out some Hunter Valley Semillon. Hardly ever exceeds 11% abv.

Moscofilera from the Peloponnese in Greece – Fantastic wines. The Moscofilera grape struggles to even reach 12% in the poor soils of the Peloponnese.

Vinho Verde wines from Portugal – Light-bodied, crisp, often having a slight spritz and typically about 10-11% abv.

Prosecco – Great value sparkling wines from Italy. Alcohol levels range from 10% to 12%.

Moscato d'Asti – The delightful sweet, aromatic and lightly bubbly Italian that rarely goes above 6% abv.

Muscadet from the Loire Valley – another region, where the cool maritime climate keeps the sugar ripeness in check. Typically 11.5 to 12%.

Beaujolais wines from France – Fruity and easy-drinking, many Beaujolias wines are around 12%.

Off-dry wines from Vouvray (Loire valley) – Also a great bet and range from 11 to 12%.

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Recommended low-alcohol wines

Over the past few months I have compiled a list of great wines tasted that had less than 12.5% abv. I look forward to enjoying more of these through January.

2006 Margan Semillon, Hunter Valley, Australia, 11.4% - From 40 year old vines from a single vineyard. Dry with a pure expression of citrus fruit layered with a waxy minerality. Elegant, refreshing and long. $16

2008 Skouras Moscofilero, Mantinia, Peloponnese, Greece - Dry, enticing floral nose, with notes of pear, Meyer lemon, and talc. Refreshing on the palate with a spicy kick of ginger on the finish. very clean and pure. $10

2008 Domaine du Salvard Cheverny, AC Cheverny, Francee, 12%, - 80% Sauvignon Blanc, 20% Chardonnay. Dry, grassy, crisp, citrus with lots of minerality and a slight creamy texture. $16

2008 Nigl Gruner Veltliner, Freiheit, Wachau, Austria, 12% - Dry, light to medium bodied, crisp and juicy fruit with lots of apple and citrus flavors and hints of white pepper and dried herbs. $18

2007 Keith Tulloch Semillon, Hunter Valley, Australia, 11% - made from grapes from very old vines. Fresh aromas and flavors of lemons and limes. Dry, juicy and refreshing with signature Semillon waxiness and hint of talc. Very elegant and delicate. $29

2008 Leitz Eins Zwei Dry, Riesling Trocken, Rheingau QbA, Germany, 12% - Crisp, dry and light-bodied. Aromas and flavors of peach, green apple, with hints of rose. Lively acidity and a long finish - $15

2008 Stift Goettweig Gruner Veltliner Messwein, Kremstal, Austria, 12% - Dry, refreshing and inviting, citrus and herbal nose with hints of white pepper. Light-bodied, fruity with flavors of apple, lemon and hints of spice on the finish. $17

2007 Nothnagl Gruner Veltliner Federspiel Ried Steinborz, Wachau, Austria, 12% - I was expecting a lighter wine. Dry and pleasantly rich, with persistent flavors of apricots, citrus and savory herbal notes. $16

2006 Hoffmann Simon Piesporter Riesling Kabinett. Mosel. Germany, 9% - Elegant, rich aromas of honey and apricot. Off-dry, crisp with great flavor intensity Long length. $20

2008 Notios White Wine – Regional Wine of the Peloponnese (by Gaia) 12% - another Peloponnese treasure. Made from a blend of local Rhoditis and Moscofilera grapes. Dry, lively, lots of fresh citrus flavors and great minerality. $14

2006 Nuova Abbazia di Vallechiara Gavi DOC 12% - Delightful light-bodied Italiam gem. Lovely citrus aromas and flavors, minerality and hints of nuts on the finish. $17

2008 Arregi Getariako Txakolina, DO Getariako Txakolina, Spain, 11.5% - Don't be put off by the name. Txakoli (pronounced "tch-ack-olina' is from the Basque region of Northern Spain near San Sebastian. Dry and light bodied (only 11.5% alcohol), crisp acidity and full of mouth-watering juicy fruit. For me this works best with shellfish. $16

2008 Vina do Burato, DO Ribeira Sacra, Spain 12% - Fresh, easy-drinking dry red wine made from the Mencia grape. Lots of raspberry and blackberry fruit. Medium to light bodied. Improves as it evolves in the glass – taking on some earthy notes – so let it open up. Serve a bit chilled. $19

2008 L’Ancien Terres Dorees Beaujolais – Jean-Paul Brun, AC Beaujolais, 12% - Savory, unoaked, earthy dry red wine with lots of flavor on mid and back palate. Subdued at first but opened up in the glass. $16

Mary Gorman-McAdams, DWS, is a New York based wine educator, freelance writer and consultant. She hold the Diploma in Wine & Spirits from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET), and is a candidate in the Master of Wine Program.

Related: Light Alcohol Wine: German Riesling Kabinett

(Images: Faith Durand; wine producers)

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Mary Gorman-McAdams, MW (Master of Wine), is a New York based wine educator, freelance writer and consultant. In 2012 she was honored as a Dame Chevalier de L'Ordre des Coteaux de Champagne.

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