Anyone who enjoys a little too much wine occasionally will have experienced the nasty after effects of too much alcohol and for people who enjoy a moderate amount of alcohol regularly the effects are more subtle, particularly around the waistline.
Not so many years ago most wines produced had relatively high alcohol levels, often in excess of 14%, and while alcohol is an important component of how a wine tastes and feels in your mouth when you drink it high alcohol wines are not always good wines because the alcohol can completely dominate the subtleties many wines offer.
When you consider the amount of sugar in ripe grapes that is converted to alcohol in the fermentation process it is not surprising a dry wine (all sugar converted to alcohol) generally has about 13% alcohol by volume. Some wine-grape varieties are suited to making low alcohol wines, particularly Riesling and Muscat. There isn’t a lot of Muscat grown in New Zealand but Riesling is widely produced and wineries have been making lower alcohol versions for many years. These tend to be sweeter style wines and the best versions are beautifully balanced with fresh acidity making them seem less sweet than they actually are.
In recent years several producers have been working hard in vineyards to grow grapes that will deliver ripe, balanced flavours in other varieties. Forrest Estate in Marlborough started making a lower alcohol (9.5%) Sauvignon Blanc about six years ago. Making a Sauvignon Blanc that doesn’t taste of sour, unripe grapes but has flavours that normally come from very ripe, high-sugar-content, fruit is a real challenge.
It seems pretty obvious that most of the work in producing wines with lower sugar levels but ripe flavours has to happen in the vineyards rather than the winery and as the low alcohol/low calorie category is one of the fastest growing wine categories in the world it made sense for the Ministry for Primary Industries to invest in a $17 million joint research and development project with the viticulture sector to produce low-calorie, low-alcohol wine.
For many years I have been a real fan of some of the lower alcohol wines produced in Mosel, Germany. These wines can have lots of residual sugar but seem almost dry because of the exquisite acid balance and intense floral and citrus flavours.
There are a number of lower alcohol wines on the market in New Zealand and some come with a surprising low price tag, Selaks Breeze range includes a 9% alcohol 2013 Pinot Gris that you can find for as little as $10 a bottle on the supermarket shelves. With flavours of apples and pears the texture is a little light but I would expect that as much of the rich, oily texture associated with Pinot Gris comes from the alcohol. The flavours are bright and fresh with some ripe acidity in the finish; overall not a bad glass of wine.
Brancott Estate has a lower alcohol range of wines called ‘Flight’. The Flight Riesling is bright and fresh and perfect as a lunchtime wine or an aperitif. The Flight Sauvignon Blanc 2013 has slightly green aromas but has flavour brightness we expect in sauvignon blanc making it a pleasant enough glass of wine for around $18 a bottle.
Seifried Estate has just released their first lower alcohol wine, Old Coach Road 2014 Nelson Sauvignon Blanc, RRP$13. This is a light, bright and fresh flavoured glass of wine and while the fruit flavours haven’t developed a huge amount of depth (because of the early pick) this will be perfect for drinking on warm summer afternoons.
The Dr Loosen 2010 Urziger Wurzgarten Riesling Kabinett is from our cellar but you can buy the 2013 version for around $35. Kabinett is the lightest and most delicate style of German Riesling and this wine with just 7.5% alc is citrusy, floral and has delicate honey tones complimented by vibrant freshness, belying the residual sugar in the wine.
New drink driving laws with allowable blood alcohol levels dropping significantly if you want to drive are coming into effect soon and these lighter alcohol wines could be a smart choice this summer.