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The Lighter Side of Wine
By Tina Caputo
Sep 1, 2009
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As much as I’d like to share (and by “share” I mean finish) a bottle of wine with my husband every night, there are times when I need to restrict my alcohol intake.  I might have to work particularly early the next morning, for example, or perhaps I lost the rock-paper-scissors contest that determined who would be the designated driver that night.  Consuming even a couple of decent-sized glasses of wine at 15% alcohol is enough to put someone my size dangerously close to -- if not over -- the legal limit.

What’s a thirsty wine-lover to do?  Well, if you’ve ever tasted one of those alcohol-free or “reduced-alcohol” wines, you know that stuff’s not an option.  I’d rather guzzle tepid hose water all night than drink a “faux Merlot” that tastes nothing like wine, or even grape juice.    

Typically, such wines are made using technology like reverse osmosis or a Spinning Cone Column, which uses centrifugal force to remove alcohol.  These techniques are used quite successfully to bring down a wine’s alcohol level by a percentage point or two (you’d be surprised at how common this is in the U.S.  wine industry, even for high-end wines), but when you start getting down to single-digit percentages you end up with a whole different animal.  The fact is, alcohol is an important part of what makes wine taste like, well, wine. 

The good news is that there are some delicious “real wine” options for people who want to limit their alcohol intake.  Certain types of wine are naturally lower in alcohol by virtue of how they’re made, or how early in the season the grapes are harvested.  Such as: 

Riesling:  Off-dry Riesling wines are typically low in alcohol -- some German renditions are as low as 7% -- because their sugars are not allowed to fully convert into alcohol during fermentation.  Rieslings that are fermented to dryness are higher on the alcohol scale. 

Vinho Verde:  This is a refreshing, slightly spritzy dry wine (usually white) from Portugal that weighs in at 9-11% alcohol.  Made from local grape varieties Loureiro, Arinto, Trajadura, Avesso and Azal, the wine is meant to be drunk when it’s young and fresh.  It’s a great wine for hot summer days. 

Sparkling Wine/Champagne:  If you need an excuse to drink more Champagne, here it is!  Because grapes for sparkling wines are usually grown in cooler regions, and the grapes are harvested earlier in the season than those for still wines (both of these practices result in less sugar that will eventually be converted into alcohol), bubblies are naturally lower in alcohol -- typically around 12%.  How great is that?

And those aren’t the only lower-alcohol wine options.  If you spend some time perusing the aisles of your favorite wine shop (and who doesn’t love to do that?) you’ll discover a variety of tasty wines that fall under the 13% alcohol level. 

To prove my point, I stopped into the Oxbow Wine Merchant, in Napa, and challenged the sales-guy-on-duty (a trained sommelier) to help me find some tasty lower-alcohol wines that don’t fall into the Riesling, Vinho Verde or Sparkling Wine categories.  Bonus points for something red! 

Where to start?  Someplace cool.  Warmer climates -- like those in California, Chile, Australia, South Africa, Spain and Southern Italy -- produce riper grapes that contain more sugar, and this sugar is converted into alcohol during the fermentation process.  With this in mind, we headed for cooler European regions like northern France, Germany and Austria. 

We found a good selection of interesting wines from Burgundy, the Loire Valley and Germany, but in the end we selected three bottles for my shopping basket: the 2008 Schwarzbock Grüner Veltliner, from Austria (12%); the 2007 La Cappuccina Soave from the Veneto region in Northern Italy (12%); and the 2001 Domaine du Grand Ormeau Lalande de Pomerol (12.5%), from Bordeaux. 

The whites differed in style, with the GV being more on the crisp, acidic side, and the Soave having a rounder fruit profile.  (In general, dry whites that are lower in alcohol are high in acidity.  If you prefer rounder, more full-bodied wines, you might be better off with a balanced off-dry Riesling.) I found the Bordeaux red to be pleasantly earthy, with a silky texture and nice red-cherry fruit flavor. I could drink any one of these wines on a “date” with my hubby and not feel the least bit deprived.

With so many styles and varieties of wines available from all over the world, there’s no reason to resort to sub-par wines -- even when you’re looking for something with a bit less alcohol than your average table wine.  You can still share a bottle of delicious wine with a friend or lover, without feeling like you should have stopped after the first glass.