This is no April Fool’s Day joke: Despite the rich diversity of styles, regions and prices of bottles in the bins of your favorite wine shop, vintners fret that they may be overlooking a niche that needs to be addressed and exploited: lower-alcohol wines.
Table wines with alcohol levels lower than prevailing standards are being crafted; they’ve developed followings in parts of Europe, and they are poised to enter the United States.
There’s no definition of what constitutes a lower-alcohol table wine, but vintners intrigued by the nascent category indicate that such wines likely would contain 7 percent to 11 percent alcohol. By and large, California table wines today customarily weigh in at between 13 and 17 percent alcohol, though the technical definition of a table wine for the U.S. is that it contain between 7 percent and 14 percent alcohol.
Over the past decade, members of the wine trade, particularly in California, have been speculating about whether alcohol levels in the state’s table wines have gotten out of hand, resulting in too many releases hot and coarse.
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Consumers look for quality, value and surprise – not the tiny print on the label that shows the approximate level of alcohol in the wine. If a wine strikes them as hot and coarse, they move on to something more in line with their taste. But some are starting to seek beverages to mitigate the influence of alcohol in their lives.
Nevertheless, vintners who may not even be a part of the debate about how much alcohol is too much see a developing audience for wines with considerably less heat than what generally is found on shelves and in bins today.
Several of them formed a panel on lower-alcohol wines at the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium in Sacramento earlier this year, and a few hundred of the nearly 14,000 grape growers and winemakers who attended the symposium occupied seats for the lower-alcohol discussion.
They heard several reasons why the public could become smitten with lower-alcohol wines, including “social responsibility” and “well-being.”
Lower-alcohol wines often, but not always, mean lower-calorie wines. Consumers reluctant to order a glass of wine with lunch or in some other situation because of concern over calories or alcohol or both might reconsider if they knew the wine was gentler.
Winemaker and wine blogger Alison Crowe, author of “The Winemaker’s Answer Book,” was the panel moderator. She noted that lower-alcohol wines could be catching on in some European countries because of public policies that couple encouragement of more healthful living with tax structures that give a break to wines with less alcohol.
“They aren’t weak wines, but delicate,” said panel member Steve Matthiasson, a Napa Valley winemaker who in addition to his eponymous label releases lower-alcohol wines under his brand Tendu. With both his brands, Matthiasson seeks to emphasize freshness and finesse, with the Tendu wines styled specifically for dishes that reflect today’s lighter and more vegetable-based cookery.
New Zealand’s winemaking community is at the forefront of developing lower-alcohol wines. In just three vintages, the country’s output of lower-alcohol wines has jumped from an introductory 1,000 cases in 2011 to 100,000 cases with the latest harvest, said another panel member, Ollie Davidson, senior vice president of viticulture for Constellation Brands New Zealand Ltd. at Blenheim in the Marlborough region.
Sales of the wines principally are in New Zealand and Europe, not the U.S., though Davidson is confident a market for the wines will materialize here. “It’s a time thing,” he said, following the panel presentation. His confidence is based largely on a Constellation survey that found nearly half of the wine drinkers questioned likely would buy lower-alcohol wines.
New Zealand Winegrowers, a trade group representing 700 wineries and 1,000 grape growers, is in the first year of a seven-year project to develop or refine techniques to produce lower-alcohol wines by focusing primarily on vineyard conditions, said Chris Yorke, the organization’s global marketing director, in a subsequent interview. “It’s easy to make lower-alcohol wines with technology, but we’re looking at doing it naturally, with canopy management, time of picking and the like,” Yorke said.
Grape growers and winemakers have several tools at their disposal to lower alcohol content of wines, from trellising techniques in the vineyard to high-tech filtering processes in the cellar. Cooler but sunny grape-growing climates look to have an advantage in providing the foundation for lower-alcohol wines, assuring that grapes ripen without accumulating high sugars that translate into higher alcohol levels. New Zealand’s Marlborough region, for example, has a bright and cool maritime climate, with no vineyard more than 60 miles from a coastline, noted Davidson. Warm California, therefore, could be at a disadvantage in developing lower-alcohol wines.
Though no one seems to know how low alcohol levels can go before consumers no longer think of the beverage as wine, Davidson said that 9 percent looks to be the lowest level that will give buyers the character they have come to expect in a given varietal wine. “Nine percent usually equates to 25 percent less alcohol. Any less than this would start to diminish differentiation,” he said in an email exchange following the panel discussion.
After nearly a decade of experimentation that has culminated in the release of award-winning lower-alcohol sauvignon blanc under his brand The Doctors’, Dr. John Forrest of Marlborough concurs that consumers will not tolerate a gentler take in wine if it means sacrificing a varietal’s usual profile. “People like wines with lower alcohol and actively search for them, but they (the wines) had to deliver the expected character,” Forrest says.
Davidson, meanwhile, also warned vintners that Constellation’s consumer survey found that wine enthusiasts would be favorably inclined toward lower-alcohol wines primarily if they were varietals they already favored from brands they readily recognized. Also, price would need to be the same. Not surprisingly, therefore, much of the lower-alcohol wine developed in New Zealand focuses on the country’s most identifiable varietal, sauvignon blanc, with high-profile producers like Kim Crawford and Brancott also at the forefront of the movement.
Whether lower-alcohol wines have a future in the U.S. is anybody’s guess. The country’s wine drinkers already may have discovered lower-alcohol wines on their own, without prodding from marketing departments. Three of the more popular recent niches in the American wine market have been made with less alcohol – prosecco at around 11 percent; moscato between 7 percent and 11 percent; and sangria at about 10 percent.
What’s more, at least one inventive, high-profile California winery has been down this road before. About three decades ago, Napa Valley’s Robert Mondavi Winery introduced a riesling with less alcohol than the varietal customarily had when made in California. The Mondavis had to persuade regulators of the nation’s wine trade to allow them to make a wine with as little as 7 percent alcohol and still call it wine, a standard that endures until this day.
The Mondavis wanted to make a lower-alcohol riesling not so much for the reasons being advanced today but to show that California could turn out a take on the varietal to rival imports from riesling’s homeland, Germany, which customarily are relatively low in alcohol.
“It was terrific,” recalls Tim Mondavi of the wine. “It had a crisp vibrancy that I loved very, very much.”
The wine was made with Napa Valley grapes, and the Mondavis subsequently concluded that it didn’t compare in quality with rieslings from Germany’s Rheingau and Mosel, where the growing seasons generally are cooler and lengthier than they are in California.
“As we became more aware of the importance and specificity of site, we recognized that riesling isn’t something that Napa Valley did best,” Mondavi says. The family eventually switched its source for riesling grapes from Napa Valley to cooler Monterey County, though riesling, at whatever alcohol level, hasn’t become as identified with the brand as cabernet sauvignon, sauvignon blanc and chardonnay.
“Low-alcohol wines have been around forever,” Mondavi adds. “Anyone who enjoys German riesling is enjoying just that, without the wine being marketed as low alcohol.”
For winemakers with an eye on the American market, the question now facing them is whether consumer thirst for lower-alcohol wines is real and worth pursuing, or whether Americans already have enough choices, regardless of alcohol content.
Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Sample low-alcohol varieties
Not many new-wave lower-alcohol wines are yet in the Sacramento market, but here are tasting notes on a few already here or could become available before long:
Brancott 2013 Marlborough Flight Song Sauvignon Blanc ($15): Though it has 9 percent alcohol compared with the 12 percent or so usually found in New Zealand sauvignon blanc, the Flight Song nevertheless seizes the forward citric aroma and refreshing lime flavor that distinguishes Marlborough’s way with the varietal. The only giveaway that something is different is the acidity is a touch softer than usual and the finish is a note off-dry.
Brancott 2013 Marlborough Flight Song Pinot Grigio ($15): As with the sauvignon blanc, this is a surprisingly faithful take on pinot grigio despite the lower 9 percent alcohol. Though clear as water, the wine blooms with a stone-fruit aroma, carries refreshingly melonlike fruit across the palate and finishes with enough revitalizing acidity to call for another glass.
Tendu 2014 California White Wine ($22): The Tendu, made by Steve Matthiason with several grape varieties grown in Yolo County’s Dunnigan Hills, shows rather dramatically by its richness and complexity that a low-alcohol table wine – in this instance 11.5 percent – need not be one-dimensional and wimpy. The key to at least some of its layering is that Matthiason barrel-fermented the juice. Overall, the wine delivers sunny citric fruit and whiffs of smoke on a willowy frame.
Francis Ford Coppola 2013 Gia Frizzante Chardonnay ($17): Francis Ford Coppola’s granddaughter Gia Coppola looks to be following in his footsteps, first as filmmaker, more recently as vintner. Her slightly effervescent chardonnay was inspired by a fondness she and friends developed for chardonnay when it was mixed with club soda. The 2013 is a somewhat buttery, pear-accented chardonnay that gets its lift both from the dash of spritz and from not undergoing malolactic fermentation, a common procedure with California chardonnay. The alcohol comes in at 11.5 percent.
The Doctors’ 2013 Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc ($18): The alcohol is 9.5 percent, but none of the pungency, friskiness and razory acidity representative of Marlborough sauvignon blanc has been sacrificed in this interpretation, which also contains a thread of diverting minerality.
The Doctors’ 2013 Marlborough Riesling ($18): A surprisingly rich, complicated and mouth-filling take on riesling, with layers of apricot and marzipan adding complexity to the varietal’s customary peach and petrol; the alcohol is 8.5 percent.