Lighten Up: The Rise in Popularity of Lower-Alcohol Wines

Bien Nacido Vineyards on the central coast of California.

Wine experts and critics frequently use flowery terms to describe their favorite drink. They wax poetic about aromatics, secondary fruit flavors, acidity, and the use of oak. What they often don’t talk about is the very thing that causes people to drink wine—or not—in the first place: alcohol.

While only one component of a wine, alcohol is obviously an important one. Too little will cause the wine to lack weight and texture on the palate, while too much will make it difficult to pair with food. Alcohol levels in wine have risen steadily over the past two or three decades all over the world, causing many consumers to seek out wines that are fresher and easier to drink.

Sandhi’s pinot noir grapes.

The challenge is that as the global climate grows warmer, grapes produce more sugar, which in turn is converted to alcohol. Some might argue about the reasons, but the planet is definitely heating up. As a result, alcohol levels have risen from an estimated norm of 12 or 12.5 percent 30 years ago to an average of 14 to 15 percent today. If the trend continues, alarmists claim that some of the world’s major wine regions may be unsuited for growing grapes in the future.

The problem has been exacerbated by those wine critics who favor excessive use of oak and advocate picking as late as possible to enhance the grape’s ripeness. High alcohol and extended oak aging are two enemies of a fresh and seamless wine. A heavily oaked 15.5 percent Cabernet Sauvignon may be appropriate with a rare steak or a cassoulet, but it will stop a garden party in its tracks.

As grapes ripen and potential alcohol rises, acid levels tend to decrease, which can make the wine feel heavy on the palate (wine geeks use the adjective “flabby”), and interfere with a wine’s ability to complement food. Ironically, wines with high alcohol, substantial levels of oak, and low acidity tend to do very well in blind tastings, which results in high ratings.

Pinot noir grapes from Sandhi vineyards on the sorting table.
Jasmine Hirsch. (Photo courtesy of Hirsch Vineyards)

Consequently, as consumers ascend the price and quality ladder, finding wines with lower alcohol becomes a tricky proposition. Part of the reason is that expensive wines tend to get reviewed more often, and reviewers frequently favor a dramatic style with higher levels of alcohol, oak, and ripeness. The consumer reaction against that style seemed to reach an apex in 2011, when vintners Jasmine Hirsch and Rajat Parr founded In Pursuit of Balance, a nonprofit organization composed of wineries that produced more Chardonnay and Pinot Noir with lower alcohol.

“We were trying to bring attention to a burgeoning movement among California winemakers,” says Hirsch. “There’s more and more of a focus on elegance, terroir, and restraint. We became associated with the trend toward lower alcohol, but low alcohol has never been a basic tenet of [our nonprofit].”

Hand-harvesting refosco grapes. (Photo courtesy of Hirsch Vineyards)

Why does she think wine drinkers are seeking lower levels of alcohol? “It’s partly due to other trends in society about moderation and health,” she says. “Americans are coming around to a more European view of wine as a beverage that goes with food. Some people think California wine is all about sunshine and fruit. For us, the purpose of that wine is to express a sense of place, and dialing back on ripeness allows that sense of place to shine.”

Not all agree. The nonprofit has spurred some controversy in the wine world, particularly among critics such as Robert Parker, who made reference to “the anti-flavor elite.”

“I have no problem with these kind of wines,” he said, while addressing the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers in February 2014. “I just don’t think that people making those wines should be trashing the other wines that are big, rich, full-bodied, and alcoholic as some sort of beverage for Neanderthals.”

Hirsch Vineyards.

“The name was a challenge,” acknowledges Hirsch. “It implied the other wines weren’t balanced, which wasn’t our intention. But mostly, In Pursuit of Balance became controversial because it hit a nerve of truth.” Last May, Hirsch and Parr announced they would disband the organization at the end of 2016 with Hirsch declaring that the group “has contributed everything it can to the conversation.”

Founder of Sandhi Wines, Rajat Parr, and various stages of the pinot noir fermentation process.

Rajat Parr, who co-founded the nonprofit with Hirsch, had an unusual path to winemaking. After attending culinary school, he worked as a sommelier and became wine director for the prestigious Michael Mina group of restaurants. For Parr, the key element in producing balanced wine is site selection.

“You have to look for spots that have cooler climates, where you can grow grapes that will make vibrant, crunchy wines with low alcohol,” he says. Both of his winery projects—Domaine de la Côte and Sandhi—are located in the Santa Rita Hills. “It would be very hard to make the same wine in Russian River or Carneros, where you have warmer temperatures and higher sugar levels.”

Along with Hirsch, he feels that the best values in lower-alcohol wine are coming from Europe. “There’s more focus on organic grape growing, which tends to produce a more balanced style,” he says. “California is behind in that respect.”

He also feels the average consumer is more likely to find a delicious, charming wine from estates with either very small or very large productions. His main piece of advice is one that is often repeated: Find a wine merchant you like and trust, and rely on his or her recommendations—particularly if he or she seems to be a fan of your favorite wine style.

Vineyards and the Chapelle de la Madone in Fleurie, France. (Photo by Gillet Inter Beaujolais)

Low Alcohol, High Value

Old World is definitely the place to look for lighter wines. Following is a handful of styles to consider, along with our picks.

German Riesling: Seek out cooler climates such as the Mosel and Rheingau, and choose wines with a QBA (the German wine classification rating based on geographical region) or Kabinett designation, which frequently contain less than 10 percent alcohol. Many Trocken (dry) wines come in under 12 percent.

Try: Dr. L Riesling Dry, Loosen Brothers, Germany ($13, 12.5 percent alcohol)

Loire Valley: Muscadet is a classic favorite with oysters, a crisp, light white frequently compared to Pinot Grigio, generally ranging from 10 to 12 percent.

Try: Sauvion Muscadet Sèvre et Maine, France ($14, 12 percent alcohol)

Vinho Verde: These feather-like whites from Portugal tend to have a low level of carbonation. They are best consumed
young and tip the scales at 10-11 percent.

Try: Aveleda Vinho Verde, Portugal ($12, 10 percent alcohol)

Prosecco: Everyone’s favorite sparkling wine from Northern Italy has become popular because it is a fraction of the price
of Champagne, more versatile, and sports an alcohol level between 10 and 12 percent.

Try: Mionetto Prosecco Brut, Italy ($12, 11 percent alcohol)

Beaujolais: Forget about Nouveau and choose one of the 10 crus of Beaujolais, such as Morgon, Julienas, or Moulin-à-Vent. They are fragrant, concentrated, and almost always in the 12 to 12.5 percent range.

Try: Louis Jadot Beaujolais-Villages ($14, 12.5 percent alcohol)

Moscato: The sparkling version, Moscato d’Asti from Italy, tends to be semi-sweet and less than 6 percent alcohol; the still wine, now produced in many regions around the world, is customarily off-dry and under 12 percent.

Try: Bartenura Moscato, Italy ($13, 5 percent alcohol)

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