Everything under control?

Just how much of a difference do alcohol levels make to wine? Natasha Hughes investigates

You'd have to be living on Mars to be unaware of the fact that alcohol - and its consumption - has become big news of late. Even wine drinkers - who like to feel that there's a world of difference between their sophisticated tippling and those whose overindulgence in spirits and RTDs ha s become part of our daily media diet - have come under increasing pressure to renounce the demon drink, or at least moderate their intake.

"I think we've seen a gradual build-up of interest in alcohol levels," says Les Caves de Pyrène's Doug Wregg. "It's partly to do with increasing concerns about health issues and drink-driving, and partly down to the simple fact that people are becoming interested in lighter styles of wine."

But here's the rub: while societal pressures are forcing many to limit their alcohol intake, the amount of alcohol contained in the average bottle of wine has spiralled in recent decades. There was a time - and it wasn't all that long ago - when it was easy to find wines at around 12.5 per cent abv or below. Now, with the exception of wines from a handful of winegrowing regions (most of them in Europe, see box), it can be hard to track down wines with alcohol levels lower than 13 per cent.

"In the past, growers would harvest on sugar levels rather than taste," explains Marks & Spencer's Jo Ahearne. "But the grapes weren't necessarily physiologically ripe - especially in the New World where sugars tend to ripen before the tannins.

"These days winemakers are looking for balance - they want to get their fruit and tannins right - and though that might mean that alcohol levels are a bit higher, that increase is not really what they're looking for."

The trend towards riper wines has also been driven by consumer demand. "Over the past few years, people have enjoyed ripe, upfront wines," says Vintage Roots' Lance Pigott. "I think it's likely that there will now be a backlash against that, and it will be interesting to see whether ­producers can cap alcohol and still keep the fruit in their wines."

But some argue that, in stylistic terms at least, current concerns about alcohol levels are exaggerated. "Balance is far more important than absolute levels of alcohol," says Wregg. "It's a simple fact that some wines can support higher levels of alcohol because of their structure and, although there are certain wines I wouldn't want to drink by themselves - a Châteauneuf or a Priorat, for instance - if I was eating something really substantial I might not turn them down."

Many also feel that a certain amount of pragmatism should be brought to bear on the issue.

"It seems to me that the alcohol argument has become somewhat hyped and is lacking in logic," says Oscar Foulkes, Cloof Wines' commercial director. "Let's take the case of someone drinking two 12.5cl glasses of a 14.5 per cent wine. If that person were to switch to a 13.5 per cent wine, they could increase their ­consumption by all of 1.85cl - a little more than three teaspoons.

"Or, doing the maths slightly differently," he continues, "you would have to drink 13 glasses (each 12.5cl) of 13.5 per cent wine before earning yourself an extra glass. Most people I know would not be in any condition to drink that 14th glass."

True, you can find wines that come in below 13.5 per cent abv, but the bottom line is that in order to consume less alcohol you either have to opt for a serious reduction in the volume of wine you drink or buy a wine that contains significantly lower levels of alcohol than the norm.

There are a handful of technologies that permit winemakers to reduce the amount of alcohol in their wines, but most of those are either of borderline legality or have yet to be perfected. In the long term, the most promising technique may well be the use of less efficient yeasts (see box), but unless the use of genetically modified yeasts becomes legal (unlikely) it's going to take time to breed a strain that will do the job properly without impacting on a wine's flavour profile.

Reverse osmosis and spinning cones are, arguably, the most efficient tools in a winemaker's arsenal, but while both are permitted under EU legislation, they have been banned in this country by the Food Standards Agency.

Questions of legality aside, the jury is out as to how much the use of such technology affects the taste of a wine. "The difficulty is that winemakers give you conflicting accounts," says wine writer and science expert Jamie Goode. "Changing alcohol levels change the sensory perception of a wine, so you have to play with it until you find an alcohol level that works for a particular wine."

"Putting your wine through a membrane at high pressure is yet one more filtration step," points out St Hallett wine-maker Toby Barlow. And it is better to achieve your goals in the vineyard, rather than the winery, he adds.

But while winemakers such as Barlow are experimenting with canopy management in order to bring alcohol levels down by a degree or two, and others are playing with the use of different rootstocks and clones, some winemakers are moving in a different direction.

A number of producers have recently launched low-alcohol wines on the UK market. By and large, alcohol levels are kept under control by picking most of the grapes at an earlier stage of maturity than the norm and blending them with a proportion of riper grapes in order to achieve certain flavour parameters. Arguably, however, making wines this way has an impact on their balance. For instance, low-alcohol reds are more difficult to make than low-alcohol whites, as it's difficult to get the tannins ripe while keeping alcohol levels under control.

And many producers "cheat" alcohol levels by leaving a certain amount of residual sugar in their wines rather than fermenting them to total dryness . This also helps manipulate the "mouthfeel" of a wine, creating a feeling of roundness that might otherwise appear sharp and spiky .

No one yet knows whether the supermarkets are going to go down the low-alcohol route in order to satisfy consumer demand, or whether they will seek out wines from parts of the world that tend towards lower levels of alcohol. In truth, most agree that a balanced response is going to include both options.

"We're going to see how the lower -alcohol wines we're introducing in January go before mak ing any decisions about whether enough people are actively looking for these kind of wines on a consistent basis," says Ahearne, adding that she's continuing her search for wines that are naturally low in alcohol to add to the range.

"I think it's a question of striking a balance and giving consumers the choice," says Pierpaolo Petrassi MW, senior product development manager at Tesco. "In the past there have been too many wines at the north end of the spectrum and not enough at the other end of the scale. The crucial thing is that we shouldn't stop making or selling superb 14.5 per cent abv Barossa Shiraz - but we should also be making 12 per cent Shiraz from south eastern Australia."

The science of alcohol control in the winery

Reverse osmosis removes water, alcohol and acetic acid from a wine after fermentation. The water and acetic acid are then added back into the wine, which is "re-alcoholised" with an appropriate amount of alcohol.

Spinning cones use centrifugal force and a vacuum to separate volatile components, including alcohol, from a wine. The winemaker then decides how much alcohol to blend back in .

Dilution is strictly illegal, but the fact remains that some producers add water to sugar-rich musts. The problem with this technique (other than its dubious legality) is that flavour gets diluted along with alcohol levels.

Yeasts are a vital part of the winemaking process as they turn sugar into alcohol. At the moment, the yeasts used are highly efficient - that is to say they are very good at creating alcohol. Researchers are working on developing yeasts that are a little less efficient, but at the moment they're having a hard time finding a strain that can do the job while allowing a wine to develop its full aromatic potential.

Where to look for wines that are naturally low in alcohol

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it's easier to find whites that are lower in alcohol than it is to find low-alcohol reds. It's worth bearing in mind that sparkling wines tend to be relatively low in alcohol anyway and wines with a greater or lesser degree of residual sugar are also going to be lower in alcohol than dry wines.

If you're looking for dry (or dryish) wines, though, remember that cooler areas are usually going to be your best bet. In France, this means places such as Chablis (try Michel Laroche's 2006 Chablis, 12.5 per cent abv, £9.99, Bibendum) and the Loire is your best bet for whites. The Loire also offers possibilities when it comes to reds, as does Beaujolais (Jean-Marc Burgaud's R égnié 2006, 12.5 per cent abv, £7.75, The Wine Society, is a light, cherry-scented quaffer). And it might seem strange, but it's worth taking a look at south western France, where a number of reds and whites are traditionally fairly low in alcohol (I like Domaine du Cros' Lo Sang del Pais, Marcillac 2006, 12 per cent abv, £7.59, Les Caves de Pyrène).

Northern Italy offers a fair bit of choice - there are the almost inevitable Pinot Grigios, for instance, but you could look further south to the Marches, and try Moncaro's Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi 2006 (12.5 per cent abv, £3.99, Waitrose). If you're looking for reds, Valpolicella tends to come in relatively light - or push the boat out with Borgogno's Freisa d'Asti 2006 (12 per cent abv, £7.99, Les Caves de Pyrène).

The Iberian peninsula offers Portugal's Vinho Verde (Quinta do Ameal's Loureiro 2005, 12 per cent abv, £9.49, Corney & Barrow, is worth trying) or, from a few miles further north, there's always the delicious Martin Codax Albariño 2006 from Spain's R ías Baixas (12.5 per cent abv, £8.49, Majestic).

Don't forget Germany, the ultimate home of low-alcohol Rieslings - especially those from the Mosel. The off-dry Blue Slate Riesling 2006 from Dr Loosen (8 per cent abv, £8.44, Bibendum) is a classic from the region.

In terms of the New World, you're going to be hard pushed to find reds under about 13.5 per cent abv, which can in no way be described as being low in alcohol. There's a fair amount of choice, however, when it comes to whites. Australia is a surprisingly rich source of whites, including Peter Lehmann's Barossa Semillon (11.5 per cent abv, £5.50, Jeroboams) and Leeuwin Estate's Art Series Riesling 2006 (12 per cent abv, £11.99- £13.99, Domaine Direct).

Two more, both from Vintage Roots, a specialist in organic wines: Stellar Organics' pungent, zesty Sauvignon Blanc 2007 from the Western Cape (12.5 per cent abv, £5.75) and the relatively rich Chenin Blanc Organica 2006 from Santa Julia (12.5 per cent abv, £5.40).

Don't forget English wines, either - the relative coolness of our summers means that grapes rarely get overripe, so it's rare to find wines with alcohol levels of more than 11 per cent abv.

Lowdown on low-alcohol

Interest in lower -alcohol beverages is growing across the board - but only lager seems to be taking advantage of the fact.

Non-alcoholic lager sales grew 9 per cent to £12 million in the year to October, according to Nielsen. Non-alcoholic ales are not on the map yet, and non-alcoholic and low -alcoholic wine sales dropped 8 per cent to £13 million last year.

But there is plenty going on in the market:

Clausthaler Classic won Best in Class Non-alcoholic and Low -alcohol Beers in the International Beer Challenge, while 4 per cent abv Orkney Red McGregor won Best in Clas s Ales up to 4.2 per cent and 3.9 per cent abv Atlas Latitude Highland Pilsner won Best in Class Lagers up to 4.2 per cent.

- Vertical Drinks' lower -alcohol fruit beer, Kriek Max (3.2 per cent abv), won a medal in the Tesco Drinks Awards, as did Hall & Woodhouse's Harvesters Ale.

- Beck's Alcohol-Free teamed up with the Department for Transport on an anti-drink -driving ad campaign over the festive season.

- Bavaria Malt is brewed without alcohol, rather than having alcohol stripped out of it after brewing. It comes in 33cl and 25cl bottles and 33cl cans, in apple, peach and lemon flavours, as well as the original.

- Fullback Imports last year launched an alcohol-free version of wheat beer Kapuziner Weissbier.

- Ehrmanns and German winery FW Langguth have launched Light & Fruity, a range of naturally lower -alcohol wines, including a white Rivaner (9.5 per cent abv) and a Dornfelder rosé (9 per cent).

Origin Wine has launched what it says is the first Fairtrade low-alcohol wine range from South Africa, the 9 per cent abv Fairhills range.

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