The Secret's In The Sugar: Lower-Alcohol Wines Are Taking Off

Jun 5, 2014
Originally published on June 10, 2014 7:18 am

Big, bold wines have their fans. But with the arrival of summer, make room for a bumper crop of lighter, more subtle wines.

"Low-alcohol wines are super hot right now," says wine writer Katherine Cole.

There's Txakoli, or Txakolina, wines from the Basque region of Spain, Rieslings from Germany and New York state, and Vinho Verde from Portugal, to name a few.

These wines typically hover in the 9 percent to 11 percent alcohol range. This compares to about 13 percent to 14 percent in a typical California chardonnay.

"We're seeing [from our stores] more requests for more balanced, light-bodied, lower-alcohol wines," Devon Broglie, sommelier and global wine buyer for Whole Foods, tells us. "And I see this trend gaining momentum."

So, what explains the trend? For starters, "budding wine aficionados are more cash-strapped than their predecessors," Cole says. And these same consumers also value novelty: "They want to look around the corner to new wines, made from quirkier, more obscure grapes," she says.

Cole says a Txakoli may offer more "bang for the buck than, say, an over-oaked, overpriced, higher-alcohol California chardonnay." And she says other wine grapes Americans aren't as familiar with, such as gamay noir (a high-yield grape used to make Beaujolais), are gaining traction too. One producer is a small Portland-based winery, Bow & Arrow.

There are several factors that determine alcohol levels. The climate and grape varietals play a role. And winemakers have several techniques that can manipulate alcohol concentrations.

For instance, they can halt the conversion of sugar in the grapes to alcohol, keeping more sugar in the wine. Moscato wines, which are known for a signature sweetness and have gained popularity in recent years, are a good example of that.

In other cases, winemakers use grape varietals that don't concentrate high amounts of sugar. And they can adjust how long grapes stay on the vine.

"Lower alcohol is indicative of grapes that were picked not overripe but maybe just [barely] ripe," Broglie says.

Vinho Verde — which translates from the Portuguese as green wine, or young wine — is a good example. These wines, which have been dubbed "cheap and cheerful" by New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov, are traditionally produced from valley-grown grapes that don't get super ripe, so sugar concentrations are lower. And since it's the sugar that converts to alcohol, as a result there's less alcohol.

And why the lower price points? In the case of Vinho Verde wines, part of the story is geography.

Portuguese winemakers can produce wine more cheaply compared with, say, French winemakers. In part, there's not as much pruning or fussing over the grapes.

And unlike champagne, which is aged before it's sold, Vinho Verde is produced to be consumed quickly.

Some wine critics love Vinho Verde, and say the good value is not lost on consumers. Imports into the U.S. have risen quickly.

Cole says, in many instances, "higher-alcohol wines can cost more because they're made from grapevines that have been pruned down to squeeze the highest concentration of flavor from each berry." And the cost of the labor behind this intensive technique can add up.

The move to lower alcohol concentrations is not just about cost. In fact, often it's an afterthought. What's driving the trend is changing preferences in wine styles.

Broglie says after years of winemakers pushing the envelope to produce overripe grapes that make bold, hit-you-over-the-head wines, the tide has turned.

"Now we're seeing a natural trend in the other direction, to more subtlety in wines," Broglie says. "And I see this continuing."

Wine writer Dave McIntyre agrees. "There is a move to roll back alcohol levels from the blockbuster 14 to 15 percent and higher wines so popular the last 15 years or so."

McIntyre says there are also some wine companies purposely making low-cal, lower-alcohol wines marketed to diet-minded consumers. Take, for instance Skinny Girl and The Skinny Vine, which makes Slim Chardonnay, Mini Moscato and Thin Zin, which has just 7.5 percent alcohol.

And in other cases, the move to more balance and subtlety has winemakers experimenting with all kinds of techniques.

McIntyre profiled a New Zealand producer who makes a sauvignon blanc and a Riesling at about 9 percent alcohol, which is 25 percent lower than what's typical. "And he does nothing more than picking some leaves off the vine to inhibit sugar growth."

The lower-alcohol trend goes beyond just vino. Beer-wine crossovers are starting to catch on. For instance, Odell Brewing in Colorado makes a Riesling-pale ale mashup with 7.6 percent alcohol. And newer takes on hard ciders such as Snake Bite, with 5.1 percent alcohol content, are getting notice too.

But don't expect to see a downward trend in alcohol in many red wines.

"The low-alcohol reds are a challenge for winemakers," explains Andrew Waterhouse, a professor of oenology at the University of California, Davis. "[Lower-alcohol wines] have a more subtle complex taste and higher acidity than wines made from riper grapes."

And he says the trend has been that most consumers prefer the distinctive fruity tastes that arise in very ripe red grapes.

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Now, when allied troops broke out from the Normandy beaches in 1944 and liberated Paris, there was no doubt that some celebrated with a bottle of wine or two. France is a nation of wine lovers. The United States has not always been so, but in recent years, more Americans sip a glass of wine with dinner. And wines with a lower alcohol content are catching a bigger share of the market. NPR's Allison Aubrey reports.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: A few months back, before any of us were thinking about barbecues, I happen to be talking to Andrew Waterhouse. He's a professor at UC Davis, who studies wine chemistry. And he told me a story about how his wife had picked up an inexpensive bottle French red from Trader Joe's one night.

ANDREW WATERHOUSE: Cost six bucks. And she said, well, let's try it. We're having chili so we'll try this red wine.

AUBREY: His expectations were low, given the price, and he says, the first sip was a little underwhelming.

WATERHOUSE: So here's what happened. At the end of the evening, the bottle was empty.

AUBREY: Waterhouse says, the wine was not bold or fruity. It was much more subtle. And he says it kind of grew on them.

WATERHOUSE: It had acidity, so it complimented the food really well. And one of the effects I noticed was I wasn't feeling the alcohol, and I thought wow.

AUBREY: When he inspected the label he saw the wine had only 11 percent alcohol. That's significantly lower than typical California reds, which in recent years, pushed into the 14 percent range. And he says as his look into it further, these lower alcohol wines, especially white wines, are turning up everywhere.

DEVON BROGLIE: We're seeing more request for more balanced, lighter bodied, lower alcohol wine.

AUBREY: That's sommelier, Devon Broglie, of Whole Foods. He says, from sparkling Italian Proseccos to Rieslings and Moscatos, many of these lighter wines are trending. And lots of factors influence alcohol levels - the type of grapes used, the climate where they're grown, and winemakers have several techniques to manipulate alcohol levels. They can halt the conversion of sugar to alcohol in the bottle, and they can adjust how long the grapes stay on the vine.

BROGLIE: Lower alcohol is indicative of the grapes were picked at not over-ripe, but maybe just ripe.

AUBREY: He says, after years of winemakers, pushing the envelope to produce very ripe, sugary grapes that make bold, hit-you-over-the-head wines, the tide has turned.

BROGLIE: Now we're just seeing, I think, a natural trend, the other direction towards more subtlety in wines, which I see it gaining momentum.

ANTHONY RIKER: Good afternoon Tenleytown shoppers, I wanted to let you know about a great wine tasting that were starting back in our prepared foods area.

AUBREY: Take for instance, some of the top-selling wines being sampled at this Whole Foods in Washington, D.C.

RIKER: So the first wine we have is a Vino Verde, which come from Portugal.

AUBREY: As wine buy, Anthony Riker pours samples, he explains Vino Verde, which translates as green wine or young wine, is made from grapes that don't get very ripe.

RIKER: And it's just a nice, flashing white wine. It's got a little bit of an effervescence to it.

AUBREY: A few shoppers who've gathered around Ellen Seigel and Simone Andrew give the Vino Verde a try.

SIMONE ANDREW: I like this one a lot.

ELLEN SEIGEL: Oh, good. Very refreshing.

AUBREY: How would you describe it?

ANDREW: It's pretty good. It's got a little bit of bubble to it. It kind of reminds me of champagne.

AUBREY: And Stacey Graham tries it too.

STACEY GRAHAM: I thought that was refreshing. I think it would be good for backyard drinking, maybe with a barbecue.

AUBREY: She surprised when I point out to her that the wine's alcohol content is just nine percent. Typical Chardonnay hovers around 14 percent. Does that make it any more or less appealing to you that it has less alcohol?

GRAHAM: It makes it more appealing, I think.

AUBREY: Why is that?

GRAHAM: I think I wouldn't get tired after having two glasses. I could enjoy it without worrying that I won't be able to take care of my kids, if they're running around the backyard and I need to start doing stuff with them.

AUBREY: And another surprise, the price. Many of these Vino Verdes and other lower alcohol wines retail in the $8 to $10 range. One reason, winemakers spend less time ripening and fussing over the grapes. And many of these lines are meant to be drunk young. This also lowers costs.

GRAHAM: I think a lot of times when you have a cheaper wine, something the under $10, you know it's cheap. You know you can drink it and it's passable, but this more is enjoyable. I thought it was very good.

AUBREY: And more winemakers are betting that the mix of affordability and a lighter, more refreshing style is a winning combination. Allison Aubrey, NPR News.

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.