The lowdown on low-alcohol wines

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Low-alcohol wines are making a comeback in the U.S.

Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl, wine and food writer and author of Drink This: Wine Made Simple, suggests some of these “quieter” wines to try.

Lynne Rossetto Kasper: You're seeing a big trend happening in the wine aisles. What do you see happening?

Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl
Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl

Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl: Low-alcohol wines are coming back. For the last 20 years, it's been higher and higher alcohol percentages: cabernet sauvignons going to 16, 17 percent, zinfandels right alongside, table wines with the alcoholic strength of port. 

There's sort of a theory about where they all come from, and they all come from one man's taste: Robert Parker, Jr., the most famous wine critic in the world. He is sort of wonderful; he is so clarifying, his palette is so good, and yet he loves what a lot of people call fruit bombs. Fruit bombs are just so jammy, so big, so plush -- to get that kind of sweetness in the fruit, you have to leave it on the vines for the longest time. It gets sweeter and sweeter and sweeter, and then you have a ton of sugar. The way wine works, you use special yeast that turns the sugar in the grapes into alcohol. The sweeter the grapes, the more alcoholic the wine.

LRK: And the more alcoholic the wine ...?

DMG: The better it shows in one of these tastings where you're sitting there with 100 bottles of wine in front of you. These wines that get the Parker Points -- they get 96 points, 100 points -- you see them on all the wine aisles on these little shelf talkers, little flags that wave at you with their beguiling numbers. These wines show so well in a giant tasting, but they do not show so well at your table. You put one of these cabernet sauvignons next to a roast lamb dish, and it's just like putting Godzilla at the table with Bambi -- just smash, crash, bam. You don't get to taste what you're eating; it's too much alcohol.

LRK: What are some low-alcohol options?

DMG: Low-alcohol wines are typically old-world, old-fashioned wines. So, wines in which the alcohol has been stopped for one reason or another. Either they're leaving some sweetness in there in wines like the moscato d’Asti, or the wines are growing in cold places like Germany or Champagne, places where they're not going to get tons of sugar in the grape. Those are very balanced, elegant, quieter wines. 

I brought a moscato into the studio because this is the wine that's sort of taking America by storm. The consumption of it is driven by women; ladies love moscato. It's so floral. It is a flower garden in a glass. It leaps out -- it's roses, it's honeysuckle, it's just a flower garden of prettiness and low-alcohol. It goes great with fruit and cheese. How many times do you want to just have people over on the deck and have the fruit and cheese and wine? This is the wine.

LRK: OK, so I've got some in the glass. We're going to take a quick taste?

DMG: Yeah.

LRK: That is nice. You know what this is going to be great with? This is going to be great with a pad thai.

DMG: It's very good with all kinds of spicy foods, but it's also great at brunch and it's just a nice cocktail wine. They're inexpensive -- you can find good moscatos $8 and up.

LRK: What else have you brought?

DMG: I brought a riesling because I don't think you can really talk low-alcohol without talking riesling. Now, why is there low-alcohol in traditional German and Austrian rieslings? Because it doesn't get very hot there, so they don't get very sweet, therefore there's nothing to really turn into pounds and pounds of alcohol in your wine. 

Rieslings are known for their nerve. What does that mean? It's that sort of energy that kind of ricochets through it and that delicacy, that nerve, that energy, that comes from careful winemaking and just a really light hand. Too much alcohol would absolutely destroy a riesling.

LRK: Which riesling is this?

DMG: It's the Heinz Eifel -- it's a Mosel riesling and it's just beautiful.

LRK: Now this is a very flowery, fruity riesling. But riesling also comes dry and it comes sweet. It has so many different face, you can drink riesling with almost anything.

DMG: The other thing to know about wine alcohol percentages is the number that you see on the bottle is not necessarily exact. Tax law in the U.S. sort of breaks at 14 percent, so any time you see 14 percent, that could be 15, it could be 14.2. They're just basically erring on the side of the tax law, and it breaks the other way as well. If you see 13.5, it might be 12; the 8 percent alcohol might be 8.5. It's an agricultural product -- every grape vine might be slightly different.

LRK: So it varies. What about low-alcohol reds? Because so far we've been tasting whites.

DMG: Yes, there are actually a number of red wines, even domestic red wines. Some people think you can't have American red wines with a decent alcohol level because it’s just too sunny in California. But there's actually a group of people who have signed a pledge in pursuit of balance. Wineries like Calera, which is a pinot noir specialist, are vowing to harvest their grapes before they’re raisiny, to not get those giant Parker flavors, and to not overwhelm with alcohol just as they've been doing in Italy forever. 

I brought in Già Langhe Rosso, an Italian wine. It's a beautiful table wine; it's a blend of all kinds of things that just grow in Italy -- nebbiolo, dolcetto and barbera -- in the Piedmont hills. They typically grow side by side and this is made at a low-alcohol, only 11 percent. For a red wine that's really fantastic.

LRK: Let's see what this is like.

DMG: Yeah.

LRK: This is made in the Piedmont, which is northwestern Italy. Oh, it has a light but kind of lovely garnet color. It's dry, fresh, light-bodied, but this would be fabulous with red meats.

DMG: Or grilled meats or an antipasti platter.

LRL: Not sweet but really delicious.

DMG: It's a balanced wine. It's a delicate wine. And it's just an enjoyable life-at-your-table wine.


Wines tasted:

  • La Fiera Moscato (NV, non-vintage), 8 percent alcohol, $9: Fragrant as a flower garden (or six flower gardens, really), this gem of a charmer is delicious and light and lovely. Not too sweet, although it is appropriately sweet. Pair it with fruit, cheese or your patio on a warm day.
  • Heinz Eifel Riesling Kabinett 2009, 8 percent alcohol, $13: The classic low-alcohol option, riesling is often low-alcohol because some sugar is left in the wine. That is, not converted to alcohol, to balance the wine's acidity. This Heinz Eiffel is a beautiful, affordable example. Nice grounding minerality, pretty lilt and a whole bouquet of pear, apricot and assorted orchard fruit scents.
  • Già Langhe Rosso 2010 (Fontanafredda), 10.5 percent alcohol, $20 (for a one liter bottle): This great Italian red table wine is made of a blend of traditional Italian grapes -- nebbiolo, dolcetto and barbera -- all of which unite to make a perfect table wine. It's got great cherry fruit, but it's not fruity, per se. It's nicely dry but not overly tannic. It's got good acidity, which makes it a good seasoning for food, in the same way a squeeze of lemon improves the flavor of fish. But it's not too tangy. All in all, this is the sort of wine you can enjoy the way you enjoy food: robustly, and all through dinner.

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