Grapevine: Drinking By the Numbers

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Nick Antonaccio
Nick Antonaccio

“In moderation, red wine has healthful compounds that provide valuable antioxidants that ward off many of the significant health diseases of our time.”

“We saw a link between a reduced consumption of alcohol and improved cardiovascular health, regardless of whether the individual was a light, moderate or heavy drinker.”

In last week’s column, I reported that each of the above polar opposite conclusions have been reported on several occasions in several professional journals. Based on the divergent, scientifically conducted studies underlying each conclusion, it is no small wonder that consumers are confused when evaluating the overall impact of wine consumption on longevity.

So what is a consumer to do? Which scientific camp to embrace and follow?

With this dilemma squarely in my sights this week, I decided to investigate the possibility that there is a middle ground, a compromise position, that addresses the negative impacts of consuming wine while retaining the passion I have for consuming wine (always in moderation).

The alcohol level of a wine is a direct result of the amount of sugar in harvested grapes. As sugar interacts with yeast during fermentation, alcohol is produced. The greater the sugar levels, the more there is to be converted to alcohol. And the converse is true: less sugar, lower alcohol.

Nature and man can function in unison to influence alcohol levels.

Sugar levels in most grapes are in direct proportion to the amount of time grapes remain on the vine. The longer the hang time, the more time grapes absorb sunshine and water, resulting in higher concentrations of sugar. By timing the harvest, winemakers can manipulate the amount of sugar in grapes and therefore the level of alcohol in a wine, while consistently retaining its fruit, acid and tannins.

In the 1990s, bold red wines contained between 14 and 15.5 percent alcohol. More recently, many Americans have become more conscious of a healthy diet and lifestyle. In addition, the debilitating effects of imbibing high alcohol wines (and other beverages) are grabbing headlines.

As a result, a number of winemakers have been shortening the length of the growing season, thereby intentionally reducing alcohol levels to 11 to 12 percent. This may not seem significant at first blush, but let’s do the math. Reducing alcohol from 15 percent to 12 perent is a decrease of 20 percent. In terms of blood-alcohol levels, a 20 percent decrease could mean the difference between a pleasant drive home from dinner or a humbling trip in a police car to the local jail.

While it may seem plausible that low-alcohol wines are the answer to the negative effects of excessive alcohol, there is also an effect on their flavor, acid and tannins.

I’ve mentioned manipulated wines above, but what of grapes that naturally produce less sugar than others? A number of grape varieties genetically produce low levels of alcohol. Look for Vinho Verde whites from Portugal, Muscadet whites from the Loire Valley in France and dry Rieslings from the Finger Lakes and Germany; these wines generally have alcohol levels of 9 to 11 percent.

But what of the possibility of wines with no alcohol? Look no further. J. Lohr’s Ariel line from Washington state has gained a foothold with consumers who, for various reasons, have shunned alcohol but still prefer wine as their beverage of choice. These wines are produced in the standard process. When ready for bottling they are instead run through reverse osmosis equipment, which separates alcohol and water from the wine. This creates a concentrated volume of wine, which is then reconstituted by introducing water back into the wine. The result? A product that is wine in principle only, lacking any semblance of its former self. However, this may be an acceptable alternative for the 35 percent of American adults who otherwise consume no alcohol but would welcome the associated health benefits.

Does low-alcohol wine sound oxymoronic? Is low-calorie wine counterintuitive? Visit your local wine merchant and find new frontiers to explore. Ask for the healthier wines section. And always drink in moderation.

Nick Antonaccio is a 35-year Pleasantville resident. For over 15 years he has conducted wine tastings and lectures. He also offers personalized wine tastings and wine travel services. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at or on Twitter @sharingwine.




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