How low can you go: Do reduced-alcohol wines pass the taste test?

Sales of reduced-alcohol wines are rising fast, in a backlash against powerful New World labels. Terry Kirby delivers a sober analysis
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Cough medicine? Ribena? Or is it just sparkling mineral water with a bit of fruit juice added to it? Has someone tipped a load of sugar into a perfectly decent white wine... ??

No, just a wine with less alcohol.

Those were few of the more printable opinions from tasters sampling some of the lower alcohol wines now occupying increasing space in supermarkets, particularly in the coming Christmas season.

But it's not just about Christmas. Lower alcohol wines could be the next big thing – at least that is the wine trade's belief. Armed with evidence that consumers want them too, they are gearing up to meet the demand. But on the evidence of our admittedly informal sampling, of which more later, there is still some way to go when finding wines both low in alcohol and high in taste.

Three main factors are fuelling the trend. Firstly, there is increasing awareness that rising consumption of wine, particularly middle-class drinking, is raising serious health issues. It's not just that we drink more. New World wines – which dominate the market – are, since they originate from warmer climates, stronger in alcohol, often 14.0-14.15 per cent alcohol by volume (ABV) compared with French and Italian wines of around the 11.5 to 13.5 per cent, and with Spanish wines averaging slightly higher. So, not only are young chardonnay and shiraz swiggers drinking more than their claret and sancerre-loving parents, their favourite wines are a quarter more potent. Last year, the Government revised its glass-per-unit healthy drinking levels advice after belatedly realising that the 11 per cent ABV norm base was now wildly outdated.

The second factor has been the growth of rosé in recent years – just see the space it occupies on supermarket shelves. That has helped convince the trade there is now consumer acceptance for lighter, fruitier wines, which can be lower in alcohol.

Thirdly, crucially, EU regulation changes make it legal to sell wine with its ABV reduced by up to 2 per cent, using two specialist techniques: something called reverse osmosis, and the method known as "spinning cone". Until recently, rules prevented the sale of one Californian product, Sovio, which the UK's Food Standards Agency said could not be marketed as "sparkling wine" because it was produced by the latter method. We give our verdict below.

Complex regulations hinder the promotion of lower-alcohol wines. Advertising rules preventing alcohol being marketed as "high strength" also affect lower-alcohol products – and neither can any health claims be made about wine above 1.2 per cent ABV. And while "low" alcohol can be used to define wine below 1.2 per cent, in which the alcohol has been completely removed, the terms "lower alcohol" or "reduced alcohol" cannot be used to describe wine in the crucial, consumer-friendly, sector between 1.2 and 10 per cent.

Duty rates deter discounting to favour low- alcohol: all wines between 5.5 per cent (8.5 per cent for sparkling wine) and 15 per cent indiscriminately attract a higher level of duty than those below. Exceptions are made for those wines from Germany and parts of Italy which produce wines with alcohol levels naturally below 8.5 per cent – some of which were sampled by our group.

A spokeswoman for Alcohol Concern said: "Lower-alcohol wines are a great alternative because they enable people to enjoy a couple of glasses of wine socially.'' She added: "We would like to see the Government lobby the EU for a lower rate of duty for wines between 5.5 per cent and 10 per cent, to encourage sales.''

Last month a Wine and Spirits Trade Association meeting heard that sales of all low-alcohol drinks, including beer, have risen by 11 per cent over the past year. Research for the PLB Group, which imports many popular branded wines, showed the greatest potential was in the 4-6 per cent and 8 per cent marks; 35 per cent of those questioned said they would drink a wine under 9 per cent during the week at home, while 37 per cent would drink one during a weekend lunchtime.

The Association is now pledged to help further relaxation of rules allowing greater reductions in alcohol levels by technical means. Jeremy Beadles, its chief executive said: "There is certainly a trend towards lighter and fruiter wines, particularly among the health-conscious. The next step is to present consumers with a wider choice. But the trade will only do that if they believe the market is there.''

Supermarkets and off-licence chains certainly sense new opportunities. Tesco now has around 40 different wines with ABV's at 10 per cent and under, while Sainsbury's have several own-label lower- alcohol wines, including a cleverly pitched range at 10 per cent. Waitrose have 10 German white wines in the 7-9 per cent category, ranging ranging from Liebfraumilch at £3.39 to high-quality, single-vineyard riesling at £23.50. They are also about to start selling a new range of lower -alcohol wines by Arniston Bay, from South Africa, which were unfortunately not available for our tasting.

Significantly, the research presented to the WSTA forum concluded: "Consumers are dissatisfied with current products in the lower-alcohol category from both a taste and a positioning perspective. If new products are to succeed, they must taste great and be positioned positively.''

Fair points – and ones almost entirely born out by our own Independent panel. Our conclusions? Most of these wines were pretty indifferent, some just plain horrible and they all certainly left us all desperate for a proper glass of the real thing.

The German and New Zealand rieslings, however well made, were, as one taster said, "just like white wine with sugar added''. Most people might find them not crisp enough to be an aperitif, or to accompany spicy foods. Others, the Italian whites for instance, were just about acceptable in certain circumstances – for summery, probably lunchtime, drinking, with, say, a salad or those sardines. Look for a partner for robust or strongly flavoured foods, to warm a chilly evening or something serious for a dinner party, and you will struggle – unless it is the Schloss dessert wine.

Disappointing overall, considering the clear gap in the market that exists for such wines. So it's time for the wine makers and the trade generally to raise their game – or we might just as well stick with mineral water....and Ribena.

Grape expectations: The verdict

Sparkling

There are lots of cheap, low-ish alcohol sparklers around Europe, but not enough find their way here: what does seemed all a bit too sweet for our tastes. Firstly the aforementioned Sovio White Zinfandel (Tesco 5.5 per cent; £4.99) – actually a rosé wine – was too sugary and cloying for most adults.

Clearly there is a market for such drinks among the young, and the verdict of most of our panel – "sparkling Ribena" – seemed appropriate. Equally apt was the cryptic "Benylin" of cough medicine connoisseur Gerry, a retired art teacher.

For his wife, Sheila, the white Italian Asti Spumante Dolce (M&S 7.5 per cent, £6.99) brought back youthful memories: "It's one of those sweet, cheap fizzy wines we all used to drink as teenagers," she said. "I like it. I didn't know they were still selling this." Oh yes they are, alongside that old party staple, Lambrusco, available in various labels, but we tried the Sainsbury's versions – 3 per cent, £1.97 for the white, £1.92 for the rosato – still semi-sweet, still sparkling, still something of an acquired taste.

Another Italian, the Villa Garducci Sparkling Rose (Tesco 7.5 per cent; £4.79) was also sweetish, but with a cleaner taste of strawberries and cream – probably the food best suited to eat with it.

German-made Alcohol-Free Aromatised Sparkling Wine (Sainsburys 0.05 per cent, £2.89), much drier and crisper than the rest, was quite refreshing in a mineral water-ish kind of way, but as Glenda, currently avoiding alcohol as a breast feeding mother said: "It's perfectly okay, although its got a disappointing after- taste. But I think Schloer [the sparkling water/grape juice/fruit juice blend] is just as good. And cheaper."

Rosé

Having not been impressed with the sparkling rosés, how would the still wines fare? Sainsbury's Alcohol-Free Aromatised Rose Wine, (0.05 per cent, £2.89) was simply "watered- down fruit juice", thought Glenda, while The Independent's Rebecca Armstrong thought it "horrible ... It tastes and smells like Turkish delight." Tesco's Californian White Zinfandel Reserve (10 per cent; £3.99) was fruity and refreshing, but also fundamentally too sweet for most tastes: more Ribena-lite, without bubbles. While these wines didn't do much for us, for consumers wanting a lower alcohol level, European rosés represent probably the best opportunity, with a decent choice at around 12 per cent ABV in most supermarkets.

White

Among the wide range of lower-alcohol German whites – big sellers when Leibfraumilch ruled the Sixties suburban drinks party – surely there would be something to tickle our taste buds? Majestic's 2001 Piersporter Riesling Kabinett (7.5 per cent, £7.99) is a perfectly good riesling, full-bodied and with depth of flavour after some time in the bottle, if you prefer the fruitier, floral, German approach to the grape rather than the bone-dry, metallic rieslings of the New World. But everyone _chorused: "too sweet!'' The 2008 Dr L Loosen Riesling (Oddbins/Majestic/Waitrose 8.5 per cent, £7.99) was, we agreed, slightly crisper on the palate, although still a bit fruity. Erben Winemakers Collection Kabinett: (Waitrose 9.5 per cent, £4.45) was drier, less floral and quite refreshing.

For a real riesling however, you have to look further afield and the 2008 Doctor's Riesling from Marlborough in New Zealand (Adnams, 8.5 per cent, £8.99 ) was much more the real deal. "Slightly petrol-ly, tastes like a 'proper' wine and the driest so far," was Rebecca's verdict. Also from New Zealand, Milton Opou Vineyard Riesling (Vintage Roots 8.5 per cent; £11.50) is a bio-dynamic wine, clearly made with considerable care, but still way too floral for most people.

Possibly the wine with most potential is the Sainsbury's 10 per cent Australian Chardonnay – an attempt to attract the huge market for New World chardonnay. While much lighter than typical 14 per cent Aussie chardonnay, it nevertheless shares the same tropical fruit flavours. And at £2.99 it's a Christmas party bargain. They just need to do something about the boring label.

IA very slightly frizzante Portuguese Vinho Verde (Tesco 9 per cent, £3) won the backing of Rebecca and her husband, Nick: "Perfect for sardines, sea and sunshine...'' They enjoyed two pinot grigios: the Giardini Veneto (M&S 7.5 per cent, £5.99) and the La Gioiosa (Tesco 9 per cent, £5.99), decent offerings of a wine known for being dry, light and refreshing. Anything strong-flavoured food-wise might be overwhelmed, however.

Two dessert wines are worth mentioning: the award-winning, honey-scented, sauternes-style Austrian Schloss Halbturn Gran Vin, 2004 (Coe Vintners 8.5 per cent, £36.95 for 37cl) and the fragrantly crisp Forest Estate Late Harvest Reisling (9.5 per cent, Adnams £9.99).

Red

....and back to Ribena, I'm afraid. There are far fewer lower-alcohol reds around than whites, so the choice was limited. The Californian Sutter Fre Merlot (Waitrose 0.05 per cent, £3.29) didn't impress Glenda: "This isn't something I could drink a full glass of,'' she grimaced, and was only slightly happier with the Sainsbury's Alcohol-Free Aromatised Red (0.05 per cent, £2.89). The Casa Dolce Syrah Dolcetto 2007 (Tesco 9.5 per cent, £6.35) was much nicer, if you like your Ribena really sweet and chilled (though it was terrific for poaching pears a day later....) Best was the medium-bodied, black-cherry-flavoured Giardini Veneto Merlot 2008 (M&S 9.5 per cent, £5.99), quite drinkable.

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