I’ve always been an advocate of full-bodied wines – be they red or white. I enjoy the unique balance of fruit and acid present in these wines.
The increasing problem I’ve been encountering is that these full-bodied wines have higher and higher levels of alcohol, sometimes approaching 16 percent, not a good thing in general and especially if I’m driving afterwards.
Recently, I’ve begun to focus on this trend in alcohol content when selecting a bottle of wine. What an eye-opening experience. There is a definite trend toward higher alcohol levels in wines, especially those from several California producers of Cabernet Sauvignons and Zinfandels.
But, countering this trend, is a consumer movement to seek out lower-alcohol wines; a movement influenced by consumers’ changing preferences and, even more significantly, the deeply embedded awareness of the effects of drinking and driving.
The wine industry has responded to these phenomena in several ways:
- Ignore consumer concerns. Great wines, according to many vintners (and critics), represent the specific expression of grapes, soil and climate. In order to achieve this they believe grapes should not be harvested until the optimal ripeness occurs (increasingly, global warming is influencing the hang time of grapes on the vine, allowing winemakers to optimize their efforts). This is a noble viewpoint, but at times it results in high levels of residual sugar and, therefore, high levels of alcohol in the finished product.
What does this portend for the average consumer? First, we may have to reduce our consumption of wine. In the absolute, a 2 or 3 percent increase in alcohol levels may not seem significant, but the impact may be. I recently read of an experiment in which an individual’s blood-alcohol content was measured one hour after consuming two glasses of a wine, first, one with 12.5 percent alcohol on an empty stomach, and on a separate occasion, measured after consuming the same amount of a wine with 15 percent alcohol. The difference? “Legally” sober versus “legally” drunk.
- Respond to consumers with offerings of lower alcoholic wines. Opportunistic winemakers are seeking ways to market a new category of wines. These “low alcohol” wines, ranging from 10 to 12 percent, are appearing in the marketplace, offering consumers an alternative to the same wines on the next shelf having higher alcohol levels.
Again, a noble viewpoint, but it has been difficult to achieve “great taste, less alcohol” to paraphrase the beer slogan. These wines fall into two broad categories: naturally produced and technologically induced.
It stands to reason that if higher alcohol levels result from longer hang time, then shorter hang time will result in lower alcohol levels. However, if grapes are harvested earlier, they may be less mature and the flavor profile of the resulting wine may be compromised.
If producers can’t achieve the desired result in the field, they can utilize technology in the production room. With high-tech processes like reverse osmosis and spinning cones, producers have total control in determining the ultimate alcohol content. Or eliminate alcohol entirely.
Ah, the wonders of technology. Ugh, the price we sometimes pay for technology. The unintended consequence of stripping out alcohol in this manner is a noticeable loss of bouquet and flavor in the wine, sometimes to the point of making the wines undrinkable.
- Cultivate naturally low-alcohol grapes. There are grape varieties, grown in many wine regions, which are naturally low in alcohol and have been so for centuries. At the top of my list are sparkling wines from Spain (Cava) and Italy (Prosecco). Next are a number of white wines, including German and French Riesling, most Rosés and Portuguese Vinho Verde. Reds are more difficult to ferret out; there are a few Pinot Noirs and Beaujolais. Always check the labels; there are significant variations.
Whether for health reasons or for being safety conscious, the quest for low-alcohol wines is an admirable pursuit. It doesn’t have to be one that is compromised.
Nick Antonaccio is a 40-year Pleasantville resident. For over 20 years he has conducted wine tastings and lectures. Nick is a member of the Wine Media Guild of wine writers. He also offers personalized wine tastings and wine travel services. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at email@example.com or on Twitter @sharingwine.