In recent years, both winemakers and wine professionals have begun to revert to more traditional practices and balk at the winemaking trends of the 80s and 90s. Instead, wine enthusiasts are increasingly focused on natural winemaking methods as well as lower alcohol wines. Partly in defiance to the recent norms and partly out of respect for the old ways, today’s wine pros seek to return their customers to the origins of winemaking and to offer more approachable and balanced wines that are low in alcohol.
Why Drink Low-Alcohol Wine?
On the surface, it may appear customers may get less “bang for their buck,” so to speak, but what emerges from a bottle of low-alcohol wine is hardly that. Designed to be session-able, or allow customers to quaff more glasses in a sitting, low-alcohol wines also achieve a far more balanced flavor profile than their high-octane predecessors.
They also provide an opportunity for those sensitive to alcohol or who are aiming for a more health-conscious lifestyle to enjoy a few glasses of wine without doing much damage. Although some consumers still prefer to seek out as much percentage of alcohol by volume (ABV) as possible in their bottles, the current trend among professionals and enthusiasts alike is to pursue low-alcohol options. For these consumers, getting drunk isn’t the main goal, and instead enjoying the nuance and pleasure of a balanced wine is their main intention.
What Is Low-Alcohol Wine?
With alcohol percentages ranging from as low as 5% alcohol by volume (ABV) to sometimes as high as 20% ABV, what makes a wine low-alcohol? Wines are generally considered to be low-alcohol if they fall below 12% for whites and rosés and under 14% for red varieties. Wines that lie in the range of 12% ABV to 13.5% are considered the most balanced in terms of dryness, sweetness, alcohol, and acid. Too low in ABV and the wine may likely contain some unfermented residual sugar, and too high in alcohol and the wine will lack natural acidity and balance.
How is Low-Alcohol Wine Made?
In the winery, fresh grape juice, called must, contains naturally occurring sugars that are created within the grapes during the ripening process on the vine. The more ripe the grape, the higher the sugar. This sugar is the fuel the yeast needs during fermentation, and, consequently, the more available sugars in the grape juice, the more alcohol will end up in the finished wine. However, allowing grapevines to over-ripen and produce the most sugar possible has its drawbacks; namely the loss of the naturally occurring acids present in the beginning to middle of the ripening process, and an imbalance in phenolics, or the flavor-giving molecules in grapes.
Yeast also has a difficult time fermenting all the sugar in these sweeter grape musts, as the alcohol the yeast produces can also reach a level during fermentation that is poisonous to the yeast and will halt the fermentation process. This can result in some residual unfermented sugar in the wine. The finished wines produced from these overripe grapes may be high in alcohol and color, but they are usually lacking in complexity and balance. In the glass, these wines can come across as overly jammy or fruit-forward, possibly even a little sweet, and very bland and flat on the finish due to their low acidity.
How to Buy Low-Alcohol Wine
Shopping for low-alcohol wines is fairly simple. All wines sold within the United States must contain a statement of ABV percentage on their labels. Though sometimes hidden in the label artwork or somewhat hard to find, a thorough visual scan of both front and back labels on a bottle should inform consumers of the style of wine in their hands. A slight word of caution, however, is that vintage to vintage, some wineries may fail to appropriately update or communicate the real ABV percentage for this year’s wine on their labels. Generally, wineries are given a 1% to 1.5% ABV window in which to report the correct ABV, though some wines may exceed this buffer. When in doubt, seek out wines that are 12.5% and under.
Low-alcohol wines are found in a dazzling array of styles and regions. Give these readily-available options a try:
White and Rosé Wines
This Basque wine style comes in both white and rosé forms. Bottled young, this is a vibrant, almost sparkling style that is high in acid and full of vibrant citrus and herb notes with brisk minerality.
Italian Pinot Grigio
Breezy and light with no reliance on oak, Italy’s production of pinot grigio is citrusy, crisp, and unfussy. Acids are refreshing and high and the finish clean making this wine an easy go-to for an array of palates.
Juicy and unctuous, riesling comes in an array of sweetness levels with notes of nectarine, pineapple, and white flowers. Built with tons of racy acid and slate-like minerality, rieslings are an easy match for any spicy cuisine.
This classic white built on sauvignon blanc and Sémillon is often overlooked for its bolder, red neighbors, but these wines are delicious, complex, and approachable. Grapefruit, lime zest, and chamomile notes layer well atop a fresh grassiness and spicy ginger notes.
This lively Portuguese wine style is made in both white and rosé variants. Literally meaning “green wine,” the name is a reference to the young and fresh nature of this wine, not its color. Ripe melon, lime blossom, and lemon dance merrily atop the slight spritzy effervescence.
Rosé de Provence
Known as the home of rosé, Provence produces wines using an array of grapes, but relies mainly cinsault, grenache, and carignan. More than just trendy, these wines are perennial classics. Bone-dry in structure and featuring notes of orange zest, fresh flowers, and racy minerality, these wines pair well with an array of situations; from a day at the pool to a fresh-caught Salmon dinner.
This French wine region is home to the Gamay grape and practices a unique kind of fermentation called carbonic maceration, creating a juicy, medium-bodied wine featuring ripe strawberry and raspberry notes with soft, balanced tannins.
Recognizable for its woven-straw fiasco bottle, today, Italian Chianti can be readily found on store shelves in a more traditional high shouldered enclosure. Bright red fruits, dried herbs, cracked pepper, and chewy tannin are on display in this Sangiovese-based blend.
Oregon Pinot Noir
Willamette Valley grows a cooler-climate version of domestic pinot noir that ripens in a slower, more balanced manner. The resulting wine showcases bright red cherry underlined by a flinty minerality and restrained tannins.
This classic Spanish region produces dry, dusty reds based on the tempranillo grape. Seek out bottles that are Crianza level for lower-alcohol options. Medium-bodied and lively, this red features notes of dried cherries and plums with undertones of leather and baking spice.
Although its name means “little sweet one,” don’t be fooled—dolcetto packs in tons of brambly blackberry and plum notes with hints of dried lavender, cocoa powder, and black pepper. Slightly full-bodied, this wine imparts a lot of tannin and bright acid, making it a match for bigger, richer dishes.