I read this morning that more than 90,000 people in Belgium have signed up for a month without alcohol, at this year's Tournée Minérale  (a play on words for the term “Tournée Général”, meaning a round of drinks).   Whether you choose January or February to deprive yourself of alcohol, the trend for low alcohol or no alcohol is definitely with us.  A study by the University of Ghent found those who took part in last year's “dry February” changed their drinking habits for the better throughout the remaining year. 

I hasten to add that while I do undergo several single weeks without alcohol during the year, the prospect of depriving myself of fun winetasting dinners with friends or a special bottle with the family on a Friday evening makes the dullest and darkest of months seem all the more dismal. 

However, excess alcohol can be dangerous and unfortunately wine contains its fair dose of it.  Alcohol levels in wines have been rising steadily for almost three decades (up as much as 2%).  Global warming plus the trend for fruitier, richer wines has promoted winegrowers to pick later to reach maximum phenolic ripeness  (that produces wines with riper tannins and intense colours).  In general the alcohol of many red wines, especially those made in warm regions now reaches 14-15%. 

What happens with wines as they have higher alcohol is that they become sweeter and rounder from the ethanol produced and therefore more crowd pleasing, fuller wines. On the negative side, higher alcohol in wine can lead to hot, unbalanced wines.

In the past few months, and certainly since the beginning of 2018, I’ve seen a backlash as the wine pendulum inevitably swings back in favour of lower alcohol wines and even spirits; I have never had so many producers contacting us to handle these wines.

There are various means of decreasing the alcohol content in wine and without making this too techy, I would like to tell you about a few:  In the vineyard, we can make sure that the vines leaves shade the fruit more so that they don’t get so much sun; we can decrease the size of the leaf canopy so that the vine’s production of sugar through photosynthesis is reduced and we can pick the grapes earlier. In the cellar, the easiest way to reduce alcohol is by using a yeast strain that will convert the grape sugars to glycerol rather than ethanol, diluting with water (not allowed in many countries), nano-filtration and all sorts of technical gismos such as reverse osmosis and spinning cones.   It is just possible that one of the only ways to make wine with ripe, fruity flavours  and aromatics and lower alcohol is by using genetically modified yeasts, a step that many winemakers are understandably reluctant to take.

But let’s just take a minute to stop and reflect about alcohol in wine.  It is topic of the moment; the alcohol level is clearly stated on a label and in wine technical sheets and while there many people have begun to worry about rising levels there are just as many wine drinkers who tell me that they do not want to drink a red wine below 14% alcohol as they find they are not rich enough.  The perception of alcohol in a wine is certainly linked to a cognitive bias:  I have tasted many wines where I have not felt the heat of alcohol at all (I think of riper vintages of Chateau Pavie Macquin) and am surprised to see the wine register 15% alcohol.  Conversely, if someone knows of a better low alcohol wine than a gorgeous German Kabinett Riesling at 8% alcohol, I want to know about it.  Attempts to make low alcohol wines have not been very successful: those that I have tasted so far are thin and pinched and lacking in aromas and fruit or overly sweet.

Like many wine professionals, what I admire about great wines is their balance: the balance between acidity and ripeness, between fruit and tannin, between richness and freshness, between alcohol and under ripe greenness.  Alcohol plays a vital part in the balance of a wine but it is by no means the only element to consider when drinking fine wine.  So enjoy your dry month ahead if you need to, while the rest of us stop worrying about alcohol and continue drinking great bottles…..in moderation.

© Fiona Morrison M.W.