Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Lower Alcohol Wines – A Better Approach

Alcohol levels in wine have been increasing for at least several decades, and there is good reason to believe that this has been driven by the consumer’s desire for fuller flavored wine. Put simply, to achieve riper flavors grapes have to be harvested later in the growing season and fermentation of the riper grapes with their increased sugar levels often leads to increased alcohol levels. The higher alcohol does not seem to have swayed the consumer against these wines, evidence the popularity of one of the major proponents of the style Australian Shiraz. Australian wines are, as Oz Clark said, “sunshine in a bottle” because many of the wine growing regions in Australia have local climatic conditions that have long, hot growing seasons that are conducive to ripening all manner of fruits.

Recently there has been considerable discontent over the increasing amount of alcohol in wine. As I have noted in previous posts I am not a fan of the attempts by individuals like Darrell Corti and Randell Dunn to foist their dislike of high alcohol (14.5% or greater) wines on the drinking public. I am however not adverse to wine makers or retailers giving the consumer the option of lower alcohol wines, or indeed of trying to educate the consumer on the virtues of such wine. Unfortunately, here in the USA the chest beating against higher alcohol wines appears to have no other purpose than to stop the production of high alcohol wines; Randy Dunn, of Dunn Vineyards, made this more than obvious in his letter to the US media.

There is a better way! And its being led by the major supermarket chains in the UK, Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Marks & Spencer. All three have introduced low alcohol wines in recent months. Last year Sainsbury introduced Early Harvest, a 9.5% alcohol white wine from sun drenched Australia. Early Harvest wine made news last year when introduced as wines that would appeal to women because of the reduced number of calories; the implied sexism created its own little furor. The Early Harvest wines, a Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc blend and a Chardonnay, are both 9.5% alcohol and have 12 grams/L of sugar. This level of sugar equates to halbtrocken or medium dry in style and the sweetness would be hard to detect and even with that level of sugar the calories would be less than a bone dry Shiraz with higher alcohol.

But why are these wines being introduced? Is it because of a desire for food friendliness in wine, a facet that is argued to be lacking in high alcohol wines? No, in the UK its not food friendly wine that is being sought. The real goal is to reduce alcohol consumption and the introduction of low alcohol wine is seen as a socially responsible move on the part of the big supermarket chains.

Between 1991 and 2005 the number of alcohol related death has doubled in the UK. And a report by the government on alcohol misuse notes “two major, and largely distinct, problems: of crime and anti-social behaviour in town and city centres, and on the other harm to health as a result of binge- and chronic drinking.” The report also lists numerous additional problems that arise from excess consumption of alcohol.

I certainly have no complaints with consumers wishing to reduce their alcohol consumption and lead healthier lifestyles. And I applaud retailers in the UK for responding to this demand by offering their customers the option of wines with lower alcohol. It’s a far more reasoned approach than the shrill voices in the USA that call for the end of high alcohol wines simply because they don’t appreciate them.

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