Diet Wine?: A winemaker weighs in on low alcohol wines

Laboratory technician, Raquel, prepares to run an alcohol test.

Is “diet wine” the next wave in the adult beverage industry?  The most recent issue of Vineyard and Winery Management has a very interesting article by Tim Teichgraeber on the increasing popularity of “low calorie” wines. The way this low-calorie wine is achieved is by artificially lowering the alcohol content, and in some cases, adding sugar or carbonation for taste. The classification of a “Table Wine” in the United States has an alcohol of 7-14%, with many of the wines you find in the grocery stores or in the tasting rooms here in Virginia coming in around 12% – 13% alcohol.  In comparison, several of these low-calorie brands are aiming for around 5% alcohol.

Ben Jordan, the winemaker here at Wineworks remains skeptical of the calorie/alcohol trade-off. He points out that the manipulation of a wine necessary to take it to an artificially low alcohol can result in something that tastes…artificial. Not to say that all low alcohol wines lack flavor or taste like something off an assembly line. There are some wonderful German Rieslings that clock in at 9% abv or lower, but they generally carry unfermented sugar into the calorie pool. Most of our favorite grape varieties produce flavors that taste good when sugar levels have reached potential alchohols of 11% and more– sometimes a lot more!

Lower alcohol doesn’t have to mean a compromise of quality, though. There are several stylistic reasons to choose a lower alcohol wine.  ”Some of us say that naturally lower alcohol wines tend to have more complexity. A 15% Californian wine, can be one-dimensional with jammy, big fruit.  A 12% alcohol wine can have more balanced flavors, more earthy, mineral notes as well as the ripe fruit,” Ben explains.

Virginia is an excellent place to demonstrate the potential of lower alcohol wines.  As Ben points out, “In Virginia, we can make really nice wines around 12% alcohol.”  In places such as California and Australia, it’s so dry that the higher sugar content of the grapes often comes from dehydration or desiccation associated with hanging on the vine as the winemaker waits for the flavors s/he wants.  Some have theorized that more humid climates with lower temperature variation between night and day can produce wines with ripe flavors at lower sugar contents.  The vines can continue to ripen flavors at night, while ceasing sugar production.  In a dry climate with large temperature swings between day and night, the grapes ripen and dehydrate during the dry, hot days, but don’t continue developing flavors during the cold nights.  So, in California a grape might need to get to 27 brix before it tastes ripe, while Virginia grapes can taste great at 23-24 brix. Just a theory, but it might explain some of the stylistic differences found in wine regions around the world.”


It seems that, rather than counting the calories, the best idea is to try wines across the board—low alcohol, high alcohol, Virginian, California, and trust what your palate prefers!



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