Anthony Rose: According to one Californian expert, lower alcohol wines are 'the last unconquered frontier'

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Are you concerned about rising levels of alcohol in wine or limited in your choice of lower-alcohol wines? If so, the wine trade is on your side. Was it altruism or opportunism, though, that brought the industry together in London this month to exchange views on the issue? Encouraged by the fact that low-alcohol drinks, including no-alcohol beers, wines and ciders, have grown 11 per cent over the past year to a value of £25.2m, the wine trade clearly sees an opportunity. Playing the healthy lifestyle and responsibility cards can only be win-win for |an industry under scrutiny by |the Government and vociferous health groups.

Officially there’s no such thing as lower alcohol. Alcohol-free wine is less than 0.05 per cent alcohol and low alcohol not more than 1.2 per cent, but lower alcohol is an amorphous concept that can apply to anything within the excise duty band for wines – between 5.5 per cent and 15 per cent alcohol. Now that it’s become legal, however, to sell wine with its alcohol reduced by up to 2 per cent, a can of worms has opened up. Radical alcohol reductions require technological solutions and these sound scary: reverse osmosis, vacuum distillation and the “spinning cone” technique.

Lower alcohol wines are “the last unconquered frontier of wine”, according to California winemaker David Stevens, a speaker at the forum organised by the Wine and Spirit Trade Association. Stevens, who doesn’t think that the alcohol-reduction process removes body and flavour too, talked a convincing talk. The acid test, as it were, was a tasting of 67 wines ranging in strength from a moderate 11.5 per cent alcohol down to a very low 5.5 per cent. Unfortunately, the test failed because most ranged from the vapid to the downright unpleasant – and they were expensive.

According to a company that makes these techno-wines, there are consumers who would buy such products as long as the flavour isn’t compromised. Asda’s chief wine buyer, Philippa Carr, isn’t convinced by artificial solutions. “Customers don’t care about the alcohol but just want a bottle of wine that tastes good and drinks well with their meal.” She agrees, though, that many wines could have slightly lower alcohol levels. “What comes naturally is what’s going to be sustainable, so what retailers need to do is challenge higher levels by asking producers to do what they can to bring the alcohol down from, say, 14 per cent to 13.5 per cent.”

Rather than seek out what are, in Tesco’s category director Dan Jago’s words, “Frankenstein’s monsters to many”, for lighter styles I suggest that you check out wines that are naturally moderate. Mr Jago pointed out that in Tesco’s range at under 10 per cent alcohol, 50 per cent are from Germany, 16 per cent from Portugal, 5 per cent from Australia, only 2 per cent from Italy and none from France. Germany is a source of some of the finest lower-alcohol wines in the world, viz the gloriously aromatic, lemon and lime citrusy, off-dry fruit of the 2009 Reichsgraf von Kesselstatt Scharzhofberger Riesling Kabinett (8.5 per cent), £11.99, Laithwaites; or, if you prefer dry, try the grapefruit zesty 2008 Mineralstein Riesling, £6.99, Marks & Spencer. Hunter Valley Semillon is a case in point and the 2008 Tesco’s Finest Hunter Valley Semillon (10.5 per cent), £7.99, is a distinctive, full-flavoured citrusy dry white. You could always, of course, just sip a little more slowly.

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