Alcohol v flavour: The search for lower alcohol wines with flavour and personality. By Jo Ahearne MW

ALCOHOL vs FLAVOUR Priorat vinyardsSo do you check out the alcohol content of a wine before buying? Some do and some don’t.
Me, personally, I’m a ‘don’t’, as long as the wine has balance.
A few years ago a new movement seemed to be started which I nominally called the ‘alcohol police’. Alcohol was officially evil.
Of course there are many facets of alcohol that are not good – dependency and antisocial behaviour being the two biggest culprits. Alcohol-related harm costs the NHS an estimated £3.5 billion a year in England.
Much is made of anecdotal evidence of ‘the consumers’’ desire for lower alcohol. While I’m quite a fan of an odd statistic or three I do also keep an open mind as to the concept of a loaded question. If someone asks me (as I am also a consumer, believe it or not…) if I would buy a wine which had all the flavour but less alcohol then my reply would be ‘of course’ – no brainer!
However, there was some research done by in the UK on behalf of the Rhone appellation which showed that half of consumers look for lower alcohol and half for higher alcohol. So who is right?   Well, the art of balance is right. I’ve tasted 12% wines that appear to be too hot in alcohol and 17% Amarone that are so poised and elegant that they nearly make me cry. It’s all about balance.
But in reality there are many wine styles and regions where lower alcohol is just not possible. Amarone and Port spring to mind style-wise. But many regions just cannot get their grapes physiologically ripe at lower alcohol. Barossa Valley Shiraz, Central Otago Pinot Noir, Garnacha in Priorat – I could go on endlessly. Asking these areas to make wine under 12% would be just daft.
However, there are some winemakers who love the flavours and richness that keeping the grapes on the vine longer can bring. There has been some searching for the alcohol sweet spot to counter the alcohol produced from this extended hang time. Some wineries routinely do trials to hit exactly the right alcohol where the fruit sings and the weight is just weighty enough. They then use reverse osmosis on each tank to produce that sweet spot in reality after picking with higher alcohol.
Reverse osmosis is a common practice in water filtration whereby a really tight filter uses pressure to overcome osmotic pressure. In wine, water and alcohol are the smallest molecules so they pass through this tight filter alongside some acids. But the flavour, tannins, colour etc do not. This liquid is then distilled to separate the water and alcohol with the water element being added back to the original wine thus reducing the alcohol of the whole batch.
But a lot of the increase in alcohol has been purely in the search for physiological ripeness. Many hark back to the ‘good old days’ when Bordeaux was a ‘healthy’ 12-12.5%. But it was often green and not just a little bit mean. With years in a cellar they could sometimes come round but do we have the time, the space and the money to cellar every wine? I know I don’t.
So to make some more approachable wines when young is not such a bad thing. You can see this with the Château des Gravières Cuvée Prestige and the Chateau Petit Val, at a balanced 13% with fruit and structure in equal measure.
They are not luscious – that’s not their raison d’être. Their job is to have structure and finesse, with a hint of minerality even, but to have some pleasurable fruit underneath this. Would this happen at 12%? The answer is no.
But in case you are one of the 50% who are searching for lower alcohol here are some stunners.   Prosecco Di Paolo 10.5% Innocent Bystander Pink Moscato 5.5% Cote de Gascogne 12% Muscadet 12% Fritz’s Riesling 12% Sybille Kuntz Riesling 11.5%. 
You’ll see red wine is conspicuous by its absence. It’s a lot harder to get red grapes fully ripe at lower alcohols; but we’re looking for them – so watch this space.
And the best news?  Most Champagne and Sparkling wine come in at under 12% including these gorgeous bottles of bubbles:   Gremmilet  ChampagneFurleigh Estate, Ayala 12%, Coates and Seely, Rene Jolly Rose Champagne and both our Charles Heidsiecks, the Brut Réserve and the Brut Rosé Réserve.