Keeping with the summertime theme of warm-weather wines, let’s discuss the growing trend toward and request for lower alcohol wines.
In general, the alcohol content of a wine can range from 5 to 16 percent. This depends largely on the ripeness of the grapes when they are harvested. As with all fruits and vegetables, grapevines begin spring with blossoms, which in turn give way to fruit. Early on, the fruits’ acidity starts very high with little to no sugar content. As the season progresses, they begin to mature, and their acidity begins to decline while their sugars simultaneously soar.
For grapes, harvesting at peak ripeness doesn’t always translate to wines with a natural balance of acidity. For wines pushing the natural balance of alcohol and acidity – those with over 15 percent alcohol by volume – it is common for wineries to artificially acidify the wines. For wines that are in the 12 to 14.5 percent ABV range, the natural balance of alcohol and acidity is just that – natural.
The industry trend over the last 25 years has been to produce wines of power, concentration and point ratings – wines of higher alcohol content. Today, the pendulum is starting to swing back toward wines with more restraint and balance. Unfortunately, growers now face a bigger challenge: climate change. As temperatures climb, fruits ripen quicker, and with the higher sugar content comes a higher alcohol content. While this issue will become a growing issue for the classic wine appellations of the world, today we can still mitigate a wine’s alcohol content.
The process of doing so is actually simple. All that is required is harvesting the grapes earlier in the fall. Growers and winemakers continually test the Brix, or sugar content, of their grapes in the weeks prior to harvest. They just need to pull the fruit while the sugars are lower and the acids slightly higher. The result are wines in the 12 to 14 percent range.
With wines below 12 percent ABV, one should proceed with caution. These wines often have a natural sweetness due to unfermented sugars, or residual sugar. This is intentional. Winemakers are stopping the fermentation process before the yeast consume and convert the sugars into alcohol. The results are typically rieslings, gewürztraminers and dessert wines.
Most white wines have lower ABVs, with the exception of California chardonnays. These can reach upwards of 15 percent but typically fall under 14 percent.
For red wine lovers, it’s time to look toward Italian, French, Austrian and German reds. They are typically lower in alcohol than most New World wines. Unfortunately, they come with a different flavor profile than those from the Americas. Lighter wines naturally have higher acidity which makes them better food wines in addition to being more refreshing for summer months.
Most consumers don’t consider a wine’s alcohol content a deal. After all, the difference between a 12 and 15 percent ABV wine is only 3 percent. That 3 percent, however, actually equates to a wine that is 25 percent stronger than the other. And that’s significant.
Alan Cuenca is an accredited oenophile and owner of Put a Cork in It, a Durango wine store. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.