Low-alcohol wines that taste great

By Elin McCoy
Bloomberg News

Maybe you tried out dry January and it wasn’t for you, or your list of New Year’s resolutions still includes cutting back on alcohol — at least a bit — but you don’t want to swear off wine entirely. Believe me, you’re not alone.

The “no-and-low” wellness trend is well under way in the wine world, with the market for low- and no-alcohol drinks expected to grow 32% by 2022 from its 2018 status, according to John Gillespie of U.S. market-research firm Wine Opinions. The first trade show devoted to such products premieres in London in June.

“Drinking a bottle of 15%-alcohol wine is the equivalent of drinking a bottle of 12.5% wine — then downing three strong vodka tonics,” says importer Bartholomew Broadbent of Broadbent Selections. The difference between high and low is much bigger than you might think.

Glass of red wine being poured from the bottle.

In truth, wine doesn’t need to have a lot of alcohol to taste good. Table wines today range from about 7% to 16% ABV, and at the lower end — definitely less than 12.5%, with anything below 10% considered very low — you can get plenty of flavor without getting bombed.

Fifteen years ago, at his eponymous New Zealand winery, low-alohol pioneer John Forrest first tried creating a 9% “typical Marlborough savvy” (slang for sauvignon blanc), which usually clocks in at 12% to 14%. Sauvignon blanc is a good low-alcohol candidate because its punchy, intense flavors and aromas always show up, though experiments removing alcohol through technology such as reverse osmosis and spinning cones sucked out aroma and flavor as well as texture. In taste terms, higher alcohol generally translates into weight and density, so with less, wines feel lighter in your mouth.

Instead, Forrest turned to nature: During fermentation, yeast gobbles up sugar in the grape juice and turns it into alcohol, so less sugar in the grapes means less alcohol in the wine. To slow down the accumulation of sugar, he pruned differently and allowed a canopy of leaves to shade the grapes from sun and heat.

By 2012 his 9.5% ABV Doctors’ sauvignon blanc was winning competitions. “It had gold medal flavors, but not gold medal textures,” he wrote in an email. “But now we’re succeeding.”

Six years ago, Forrest joined 18 other top wineries in the government-funded NZ Lighter Wines initiative to extend his idea and help make New Zealand the world’s No. 1 producer of naturally low-alcohol wines (less than 10% ABV) that are just as delicious as those at full strength. Already the category amounts to NZ$35 million ($22.3 million) in sales.

I’ve tasted some of them in New Zealand and in London. While only a handful are in the U.S. (see below), more are arriving this spring, including Forrest’s excellent Doctors’ rosé and sauvignon blanc.

Winemakers in other regions around the world have also been making lighter wines for decades, albeit without government initiatives. Health-conscious entrepreneur, biohacker, and wine lover Todd White started tracking them down five years ago at natural wine fairs and ended up founding Dry Farm Wines, a club that promises “a healthier way to enjoy wine.”

“Let’s face it,” he told me, “alcohol is a neurotoxin.” He now sells 2 million bottles of low-alcohol wine a year.

The natural wines in White’s subscription service are lab-tested to ensure that not only is the listed alcohol content accurate, but also that they’re sugar-free, low in sulfites, and contain no chemical additives. He says they’re also keto- and paleo-friendly. The grapes must come from certified-organic or biodynamic dry-farmed (unirrigated) vineyards. The ones I’ve tried are absolutely delicious.

One strategy for finding low-alcohol wines at your local shop is to look for bottles from cool-climate regions, where grapes ripen more slowly and thus end up with less alcohol. That means muscadet in the Loire Valley; Spain’s green, rainy Basque Country; Germany; Portugal’s Vinho Verde region; and Val d’Aosta and other parts of northern Italy.

Grape variety and winemaking styles also have a huge impact on alcohol. It’s easier to make a low-alcohol riesling than a zinfandel, for instance. Sparkling wine usually has less; ditto some sweet wines. Check the label for alcohol content, though you’ll probably have to hunt hard — the number is usually in micro type. Or use this list below as your guide.

Lower-Alcohol Wine Buying Guide

NV Broadbent Vinho Verde ($8) With fresh floral aromas and green plant and lime flavors, this zippy white from cool and rainy northwest Portugal is ideal with shrimp or scallops. It’s 9% alcohol.

2018 Aphros Ten ($11) This is the lightest white from Vinho Verde winemaker Vasco Croft, one of Portugal’s organic and biodynamic pioneers. With tart acidity, tangerine, and mineral flavors, it’s intense and refreshing at 10% ABV.

2018 Brancott Estate Flight Song Pinot Grigio ($13) This huge New Zealand winery promotes its low-alcohol (9%) Flight Song range as “low-calorie.” The pinot grigio, with its creamy texture and pear and honeysuckle aromas, is better than the sauvignon blanc.

2018 Giesen Pure Light Sauvignon Blanc ($15) Available in the U.S. later this month, this bright white has a delicious sweet/sour character similar to Giesen’s regular sauvignon blanc but is slightly lighter in body. A zero-alcohol version debuts in late spring.

2018 G.D. Vajra Moscato d’Asti ($17) With soft white peach and orange blossom aromas and semisweet, luscious ripe fruit flavors, Vajra’s lightly sparkling moscato is always one of Piedmont’s best, with a mere 5.5% alcohol.

2016 Avinyo Brut Cava Reserva ($20) Spanish cavas — like this one, with soft bubbles and apple-y flavors — are made the way Champagne is but with different grapes. The wine is 11% alcohol.

NV Jean-Paul Brun Domaine des Terres Dorees FRV 100 ($20) Star Beaujolais winemaker Jean-Paul Brun makes this vibrant, fruity-with-a-hint-of-sweetness pét-nat rosé from gamay grapes. It’s 7.5% alcohol and ideal with a tangy cheese.

2018 Ameztoi Txakolina Rubentis Rosado ($26) Txakoli wines from Spain’s Basque Country are all lightly fizzy and low in alcohol. This shimmering pink one is bright and crisp, with intense notes of red berries and 11% alcohol.

2015 Keep Wines Albarino ($28) Yes, California can produce lower-alcohol wines. This delicious, salty, mineral white from a single vineyard in the Sacramento River Delta is 11% alcohol.

2018 Maximin Grunhaus Riesling Kabinett Abtsberg ($38)Grown on steep slopes above the Moselle River in Germany, this lively riesling has complex aromas and flavors of green herbs, minerals, fresh limes, and smoke. It’s only 8.5% alcohol.

2018 Rote Biene Hollenburg (in six-bottle monthly selection, $159 )This Austrian red blend of zweigelt and blauer portugieser grapes in the Dry Farm Wines portfolio clocks in at 10.26% alcohol. Its fresh, grapey, lip-smacking flavors will make you crave another glass.

2018 Riberach Peroraison (in six-bottle monthly selection, $159)Soft, lushly fruity, and sophisticated, this mouth-filling red from the foothills of the Pyrenees has a rich, succulent texture despite being only 11% alcohol.