One of the most interesting trends in modern wine-drinking culture is the growing interest in lower-alcohol wines. Alcohol is the one element of a wine’s structure, compared to acidity, residual sugar and tannin, that has a special impact on consumer health (not to mention the tax rate on the wine) and must be monitored as closely as possible. It’s the one piece of technical data that is required by law to be on the bottle. And outside matters of law and health, there is the question of taste; some people find high-alcohol wines bold and beautiful, and others find them lacking in subtlety and overpowering as a food pairing.
What causes a wine to have high alcohol? To make wine, yeasts convert sugars into ethanol. Riper grapes with more sugar can make higher-alcohol wines, though this is not a neat equation (a zinfandel at 15 percent ABV could still have plenty of residual sugar left over not fermented into alcohol).
Fine wines fall routinely above 14 percent, especially in California, although higher alcohol is by no means limited to one region. The powerful reds of Spain or the regal Châteauneuf-du-Pape come to mind. In Italy, the historic sites for Brunello di Montalcino were the warmer microclimates, but today, longer, hotter growing seasons (and also, standard viti-cultural practices regarding said growing season) are pushing the ripeness levels up, and alcohol levels are getting higher as a result. It's more common to find a Brunello at 15 percent these days, whereas it was once a struggle to reach 12 percent. Not to imply that higher alcohol wines are somehow "better," just that the priorities of the wine world are changing as the optimal ripening of the grapes is no longer a major hurdle.
Yet, a brutal debate rages on: The corporate wine director for Michael Mina, sommelier Rajat Parr, has always campaigned for balance, specifically in favor of low-alcohol wines. Influential wine critic Robert Parker, however, famously dismissed this perspective as "wine fascism." So, if you're looking to enjoy a couple bottles in a night, the difference between 12 percent and 14 percent can make a huge difference. It's important to consider that, in response to consumer demand for lower-alcohol wines, acidification and watering-down of wines will be the easiest and cheapest response. Here are a few of my favorite low-alcohol wines that do it right.
Reuscher-Haart, Piesporter Goldtröpfchen, Riesling Spätlese, 2013, $22
Not everyone likes late-harvest riesling; a few of my customers ask for low-alcohol wines but quickly follow it up with "no sweet wines, though." But for those that partake, this wine is a dream; with notes of lush tropical fruit and acidity that dances over your tongue like a mountain stream. It clocks in at just 9.5 percent ABV, and is packed with flavor. A village that lies alongside the Moselle River, Piesport's greatest vineyard is Goldtröpfchen (the name means "droplets of gold") and wines bearing the title Piesporter Goldtröpfchen are a class in and of themselves.
Romain Chamiot, Apremont, Savoie, France, 2015, $21
A little-known alpine appellation in Northeastern France, Savoie is too moderate and northerly to produce big, powerhouse styles of wine, although the region's climate is technically continental, with both alpine and Mediterranean influences. Romaine Chamiot's family has owned his estate for generations—some of their vines are up to 80 years old. The white grape jacquère is on display here, yielding a dry, medium-bodied wine with creamy acidity and notes of lime, zesty minerality and wildflowers.
Domaine Vacheron, Sancerre Rouge, 2013, $50
I personally love a pinot noir that is shimmeringly transparent, and this Sancerre Rouge is a perfect example. From a region more famous for its whites than its reds, this wine is a little bit of a sleeper hit, and unabashedly resembles a pinot noir from the famous appellation of Bourgogne. The Vacherons are the leading winemaking family in Sancerre, known for their integrity both in the vineyard and the cellar; employing biodynamic methods in the vineyard, and even making their own organic compost. This wine tastes like cedar and pine and forest floor, with racy cranberry and rhubarb notes. It's a bit of a splurge at $50, but kind of a bargain when you consider what the prices look like in Bourgogne lately.
Matthiasson, "Helen's Gate Vineyard," Grenache/Syrah/Mourvedre, Napa Valley 2012, $43
"Ok," you might be saying, "late-harvest riesling and mid-altitude pinot noir is a little ... expected, non? What if I like red wine from California?" Two-time James Beard Award winner Steve Matthiasson has long been a champion of lower-alcohol wines, which he achieves in his wines by harvesting early. This particular Rhone-style blend is a little rare and hard to find, but the entire line of Matthiason wines are all lower-alcohol; the Helen's Gate is 11.8, but the winery produces a great cabernet and chardonnay, in addition to many other bottlings. This wine is also elegant, food-friendly and unmistakably American (in a good, honest way) in terms of fruit and flavor.