The view held by some wine aficionados is that there is good wine and then there is low-alcohol wine. This might have been true at one point in the past but the availability of new wine production methods paired with a deeper understanding of local vineyards seems to be changing things.
Now, it is not only possible to find a good low-alcohol wine but it might even be preferable. Over the last several years the average alcohol content of wine has been creeping up to unprecedented levels yet that goes mostly unnoticed. There is an understanding that the wine alcohol levels we see now are the wine alcohol levels we have always seen when in reality that is not the case.
The danger inherent in that is certain health recommendations on how much wine is ok to drink might be made inaccurate before they can be updated. Drinking a glass of wine can have health benefits, but consistently drinking wine at high alcohol levels can be dangerous. Wine is made to be enjoyed and you shouldn’t have to jeopardize your health to do so.
Thankfully low alcohol wines are available and they provide all the flavors, textures, aromas, and joy of any other wine. The benefit is your body wins in the long run, your liver is spared that extra push that a 15% ABV glass of wine demands.
Why drinking low alcohol wine is a good idea
The obvious implications of drinking low alcohol wine are that you won’t necessarily end up passed out on the couch after a couple of glasses. Beyond that though, there are some solid reasons to consider low alcohol wines.
The first reason is that, generally, the more alcohol there is in the wine the more calories the wine has per glass. Due to certain loopholes in the law, wine bottles aren’t required to have nutrition facts which typically display calorie information along with other nutrient data. This leaves a gaping hole in most people’s awareness of just how calorically dense each glass of wine is.
If you consider the fact that a standard glass of wine is only 5 oz and each of these glasses can have around 125 calories on a good day, then filling your 14 oz glass with wine is an instant 300 calories or more every time. These calories are actually provided by the alcohol and the sugar in the wine combined but alcohol is the largest contributor by far. There are also low sugar wines out there.
These alcohol calories are what are known as empty calories which means they don’t do much else for you but add fat. There is no nutritional value there. The sweeter the wine and the more alcohol it has the more calories you are consuming. A sweet Ruby Port at 19.5% ABV will have about 230 calories per 5 oz glass.
Another reason to consider low alcohol wines is correlated with high calories. Despite all the lauded health benefits of wine they essentially become undone and even reversed at certain thresholds of calorie count and alcohol consumption. All the cancer-preventing, cardiovascular health improving, stress-reducing effects of wine are eliminated when too much alcohol is introduced to your system at one time. This is why the recommended guidelines suggest only 1 glass a day for women and 2 glasses a day for men. Keep in mind that these are glasses with only 5 oz of wine, not full wine glasses.
When too many empty calories are ingested and too much alcohol is forced through the liver each and every health benefit of wine is undone and eventually becomes reversed. Beyond direct health reasons, it is also important to consider that any good wine was painstakingly constructed to exhibit certain aromas and flavors. Keeping this in mind is the third reason to take an interest in lower alcohol wines.
Too much alcohol actually dulls the tongue and the senses and prevents you from fully enjoying the wine for what it is meant to be. With lower alcohol wines you can drink it more while still enjoying the benefits it confers to any meal you pair it with. Despite what some people might say the point of wine isn’t drunkenness, there are cheaper and more effective routes to that conclusion. Wine is designed to be savored and appreciated and too much alcohol can disrupt or prevent that.
What qualifies as a low alcohol wine?
The alcohol content of wine, or any alcoholic beverage for that matter, is typically presented in terms of the alcohol by volume (ABV) which is a percentage. This literally refers to what percentage of the liquid in the bottle is just pure alcohol. The average beer might be around 5.5% ABV while the average bottle of wine might be around 11% to 13% ABV.
A low alcohol wine then would be anything below 10% ABV or so if you just go by the average. There is a more official definition though. A Sommelier, for example, would actually say that white wine with an ABV of 12% or lower is a “low”-alcohol or “sessionable” wine while a red wine at or below 13% would qualify. By that definition though most wines could be considered low alcohol. As a side note, the term sessionable came out of the beer world to describe any beer that had an alcohol content below the average. These beers were described as low-proof or session beers since you could drink several in one “session”. The term has stuck and spread.
For the purposes of this guide however, a low alcohol wine is anything below the average. So, your sub 10% ABV wines count. It is actually more difficult to find good wines in this range because of the way alcohol and flavor are created in the winemaking process. It is difficult but not impossible.
Also, when searching for low-ABV wines you should keep in mind that the ABV on the label isn’t always an exact reflection of the alcohol content in the wine. This is because, in the United States at least, the law allows variation of up to 1.5% ABV on wines of 14% ABV or lower. If you are really trying to cut down on alcohol consumption with wine your best bet is to look at ABV’s at the much lower end like 5.5%.
What makes a wine low in alcohol?
Simply walking into your local wine store and asking for a low-alcohol or low-ABV wine is sure to get you any number of responses from rolled eyes to a light chuckle. It is a fair question but some aficionados might disagree. This is due, in part, to the fact that the alcohol content of any wine will vary from vintage to vintage. This is also because it is considered uncommon for a wine to both be good and especially low in alcohol.
That’s not because of some inexplicable obsession with drunkenness but more because the flavor, sweetness, and the alcohol content of wine are tied to the sugar content of the grapes it was made from. In winemaking, the sugar in the grapes is slowly converted to the alcohol in the wine and whatever sugar is left over helps determine the sweetness. This usually means that low-alcohol wines are often sweet or at least off-dry.
Sweet 5.5% ABV Moscatos and 8% ABV Rieslings aren’t uncommon. It is possible to harvest grapes with lower sugar content though to create less sweet and lower ABV wines. The whole goal in vineyards is to harvest grapes that are optimally ripe for winemaking. Balancing this ripeness with sugar levels to make good low-alcohol wine is challenging.
Well ripened grapes with low sugar levels do grow. They typically grow in cooler climates like northern Europe so countries at, or above, that latitude are a good place to look for low-ABV wines. The balance of climate, grape variety, and winemaking style all come together in the end to make the final product. Regions in places like northern Italy, northern France, and Germany are capable of growing the needed grapes so those are good wines to begin with.
If grapes are harvested before they are ripe they will have less sugar too. This is what winemakers use when manufacturing sparkling wines. The problem with these grapes though is that because they are not ripe it means they haven’t completed their normal biochemical cycles. These non-ripened grapes will be more acidic and tart because of that. Normally, to make these grapes palatable, additional sugars are added during production.
Other than relying on the sugar levels of the grapes themselves there are other methods that winemakers employ to lower the alcohol level of their final product. Since ABV is a measure of alcohol per unit of volume a given amount of wine can be diluted with fresh grape juice, for example, to help bring down its ABV. A similar approach involves fermenting fewer grapes from the outset and then adding liquid after to bring up the volume.
More technical methods are employed as well, such as reverse osmosis. This can be done with a fair degree of control so that the desired ABV is met without compromising too much of the wine itself.
What will a low alcohol wine taste like?
The final flavor profile of any wine is dependent on many factors ranging from the grape varietal used and the climate it was grown in, all the way to the style of wine and the choices made during production. In a very general sense, a low alcohol wine made with most regular vine-ripened grapes will be sweet. As mentioned previously, this is because the sugar in the grape is either converted into alcohol during the winemaking process or it remains as residual sugar in the wine. So, low alcohol means more sugar left over.
Alternatively, traditional sparkling wines are made with low-sugar grapes that haven’t fully ripened yet. Sugar is actually added during production to counteract the acidity of these grapes. For a balanced low-ABV dry wine it is most likely made from ripe low-sugar grapes grown in cooler climates.
What are some good low alcohol wines?
As with all things wine, what is best can be very subjective. Still, there is some general consensus among sommeliers and critics about the best styles and sources of low alcohol wines.
The recommendation that often tops the list is a Kabinett style of German Riesling. This is the lightest style of Riesling and is made from grapes that are the least ripe, this means less sugar. The wines range in style from dry to off-dry and the ABV can range from 8% to 10%. These wines regularly come from the Mosel wine region of Germany.
Another top contender is the wines produced in the northern regions of Italy. The Italian Moscato d’Asti is commonly offered up and this lightly carbonated, or half-sparkling, fruity wine leaves a lightly sweet impression with an ABV of 5-6 %. The Venetian “orange blossom” Fior d’Arancio is another good example. It is semi-sweet, semi-sparkling and clocks in at only 5% ABV.
A wine that makes the list from slightly more southern latitudes than expected is the Txakoli from the Basque region of Spain. This wine is slightly-sparking, very dry and high in acidity. It also hovers around the 10% ABV line.
What about nonalcoholic wine?
If you want to take low-alcohol wine to the extreme there are some options available for nonalcoholic wines. According to U.S. law, these wines are defined as having less than 0.5% ABV although some exist at what is effectively 0% ABV. You might be wondering, well, what distinguishes that from juice? The key is in the process.
Basically non-alcoholic wine is regular wine that has had the alcohol removed. All the flavors, aromas, tannins, and texture are still there, just no alcohol. Manufacturers take their regular wine and pass it through a filtration or distillation process. In the simplest terms, this means the wine is either passed under pressure through membranes that prevent the passage of alcohol or the wine is put in a vacuum where the alcohol is boiled away under controlled conditions.
Exact methods vary, but in the end, you get a drink that is a lot like wine. The process isn’t always effective in terms of retaining the good qualities of wine though so not all non-alcoholic wines are equal.
The upside to non-alcoholic wines though is that when they are good you can get many of the benefits of wine without the risks from alcohol and high calories. Since filtration and distillation mostly just remove alcohol you are still left with the polyphenols and other healthy compounds that wines provide.
You also are not pressed for choice since just about every style of wine that comes with alcohol is also produced without it. You name it, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, cabernet sauvignon, or even merlot and champagne. Similar options, similar flavors, similar health benefits, without any of the downsides, non-alcoholic wines don’t sound like a terrible option after all.
Some wine purists seem to scoff at the idea of low alcohol wine but the reality seems to be that there is nothing to scoff at. When even the non-alcoholic wines have their merits it means things have changed. Low alcohol wines confer plenty of health benefits by not being as alcohol and calorie heavy as other wines. This alone is reason enough to consider drinking them.
Less alcohol in the bottle also means that you can get away with drinking more of it and actually still enjoy what the bottle has to offer. You skip the dehydration or the hangover yet still enjoy the beauty of an afternoon whiled away with wine and good food What’s not to love?
With selections available from around the world, and most notably from established old-world wineries, A low alcohol wine is a perfectly viable option for any wine enthusiast. If you have only ever tasted wines in the range of 13% ABV and higher you should definitely expand your horizons and dip below 10% ABV. The health benefits from that marginal drop in alcohol content are tremendous while the impact on taste and experience might go undetected.
Bonus tip: Check out this taste test of alcohol-free red wines to see how they stack up!