The issue of alcohol levels may be the most discussion-provoking topic in the wine world. It gets brought up at virtually every event I attend and is constantly batted about on active wine discussion boards, like Mark Squires’s board on eRobertParker.com and Chowhound. I moderated a seminar last month at a festival called Gastronomy by the Bay. It was a great panel—a California winemaker, a master sommelier, an oenology professor from Bordeaux, and the food and beverage director for American Airlines—but the audience most wanted to talk about how to get the alcohol levels down in wine. Of course, the subject of dealcoholization came up, but people seemed more interested in discussing wines that come by their proofs naturally. A woman asked, pointedly, “Where do the best naturally low-alcohol wines come from? The wines where you can drink more than one glass?”
I am a big proponent of medium-bodied wines. On my last visit to New Zealand, after two weeks of drinking Rieslings, Pinots, and even Syrahs that were 13 percent or lower, my mouth seemed to relax and revel in the easy-to-drink wines. As I swished a wonderful Syrah from Hawkes Bay, I could sense its layers and sift through its tannins with much less effort than, say, a typical Syrah from Santa Barbara County. The same amount of stuffing was being put into a smaller package, one not stretched by alcohol. Riper, stronger wines always seem to have a touch of fruity sweetness to them, which can at first be alluring but quickly becomes cloying. You want only one glass of these high-alcohol wines, not only because they get you drunk faster but because one glass alone seems to wear out the palate.
Lower alcohol means about 12 percent and below for white wines, and from about 12.5 to 13 percent and below for red. Typically, though not always, these wines come from cooler, northern climates, where high grape sugars are difficult to achieve on a regular basis. This is also true on a microlevel for various regions; in Burgundy, for instance, wines from the great vineyards (which get riper) will often be stronger than village or regional wines. Also, many good low-alcohol wines are off-dry: If all the sugar in the grapes is not fermented into alcohol, the alcoholic strength will be lower.
German Rieslings are kings of low-alcohol whites, often clocking in at 7 to 11 percent alcohol. Even in the spätlese category, which indicates a moderate level of ripeness, the 2002 Maximin Grünhäuser Abstberg Riesling is only 8 percent. It has some residual sweetness, but good German Riesling is never cloying—the elevated acidity takes care of that. There are other good choices in white wines, though. France’s Loire Valley is a trove of these wines: Muscadet Sévre-et-Main, Chablis, and Chenin Blanc from appellations like Jasnieres, Savenierres, and Vouvray are all good choices. Aligoté, a crisp white refresher from Burgundy, typically registers at 11.5 to 12 percent. And Vinho Verde from Portugal, harvested bright, sharp, and acidic, tries hard to make it to 10 percent.
In the sparkling category, Champagne tends to be on the border, at 12.5 to 13 percent alcohol. But don’t forget some of the world’s off-dry beauts: Moscato d’Asti, Bugey Cerdon, and Sekt from Germany are all good bets.
Low-alcohol reds are harder to find, but they’re out there. Beaujolais can make gorgeous, full, and concentrated wines at about 12.5 to 13 percent. Try the Fleurie from Clos de la Roilette to see what I’m talking about. A Bourgogne Rouge from a fine producer like Domaine de Montille is labeled at 13 percent, which is typical for regional and village-level wines. Start climbing into the premier and grand cru vineyards and you’ll see the alcohol levels climb a bit, too. It’s in the south, places like Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Bandol, where the alcohols really rise.
A delicious, light wine from Italy is Schiava—the everyday red of the Alto Adige. Most other Italian and Spanish wines, thanks to their more southernly latitudes, tend to hit over 13 percent, as is true for most of the New World, except for really cool climes like New Zealand’s South Island, Australia’s Tasmania, and coastal Chile. But it can be done here. I’m eagerly awaiting, for instance, the release of the 2006 Anderson Valley Pinot Noirs from the Copain winery, some of which are as low as 12.7 percent. And there’s always the oddball wine, like California producer J. Lohr’s Valdiguié, bright and Beaujolaislike. Drink it as you might any of these low-alcohol reds: at cellar temperature or even a bit chilled.