Low-alcohol wines are all the rage amongst wine enthusiasts, but what does “low-alcohol” really mean, and how can savvy wine shoppers find them?
Low-Alcohol Wines Defined
by Michael Warner
The secret is out! Low-alcohol wines are all the rage amongst wine enthusiasts. The wines offer a bit more forgiveness to those who enjoy an extra glass, of course, but they also provide a wide array of food pairing options, and they frequently display more nuanced and delicate flavors. But what does “low-alcohol” really mean, and how can savvy wine shoppers find them?
Where Does Alcohol in Wine Come From?
Grape juice is filled with naturally-occuring sugars that yeast find irresistible. The yeast eat those sugars and convert them into alcohol. The more sugars there are in the grapes at the time of harvest, the more alcohol there will be in the final wine. Most dry wines – those in which nearly all of the sugars have been converted to alcohol – have about 11 - 15% alcohol by volume (ABV). Sometimes the yeast don’t finish the fermentation and some residual sugar remains in the wine, resulting in a wine that tastes off-dry or sweet. These sweet wines are naturally lower in alcohol and generally fall between 5 - 11% ABV.
What Qualifies as “Low-Alcohol?”
There is no official designation for “low-alcohol” wines. Rather, some wines are comparatively low-alcohol relative to others. The important concept to remember is, the math behind how much of your wine is composed of alcohol.
At first glance, a wine that is 15% ABV appears to contain 3% more alcohol than a wine that is 12% ABV. But think back to your high school algebra and you will recall that increasing from 12% to 15% is actually a 25% increase in the volume of alcohol. So consuming two glasses of the 15% ABV wine is equivalent to drinking two and a half glasses of the 12% wine.
Wines to Look For
The easiest way to find wines that are comparatively low in alcohol is to seek out regions where grapes don’t grow as ripe. Grapes need heat to develop sugar, so grapes from cooler growing regions have less sugar – and produce lower alcohol wines – as a result.
In general, coastal regions are a good place to start. Think of Spain’s Basque Country for a brisk Txakoli or Portugal’s Vinho Verde. Both regions produce light, refreshing, and slightly effervescent wines. California’s Sonoma Coast and South Africa’s Hemel-en-Aarde are great options for Pinot Noirs. Interior regions far from the Equator can also be good bets. Seek out whites from France’s Chablis and Loire Valley regions or reds from Argentina’s Patagonia.
Sparkling wines are frequently lower in alcohol, usually in the range of 11.5 - 12.5% ABV. They’re fun and celebratory, of course, but their lively acidity and the inherent nature of bubbles makes them exceptionally food-friendly, too. There’s a reason that Cava is ubiquitous in Barcelona’s tapas bars, and it’s because the wine works equally well with veggies, meats, cheeses, and eggs. Even better, sparkling wines come in white, rosé, and red, so you have plenty of tasty options.
Wines that are off-dry or a little bit sweet typically have alcohol in the range of 8.5 - 11% ABV. Admittedly, the wines at this end of the flavor spectrum can be something of a gamble as poorly made versions will come off as just sweet. The gamble often pays off, however, when well-made off-dry wines retain an abundance of acidity. The combination of sweetness with liveliness makes these wines a perfect pairing for complex dishes. Think of South Asian or Thai cuisines that combine milk fats, spices, and sweet elements. The little touch of sweetness balances with the sweetness of the food, and the low alcohol won’t compete with hot spices.
To hedge your bets, look for off-dry wines that come from regions with strong traditions of producing off-dry and sweet wines. German wines with the VDP designation are almost always a great choice, as are Chenin Blancs from France’s Vouvray region, and Pinot Gris from France’s Alsace will do the trick.