These days there seems to be more interest in low-alcohol wines or reasonable alcohol level wines. Harking back to the old days when we started our organic wine business in 1986, all of our wines were European and were between 11.5% and 13%. Since then there has been a tendency for a steady increase of alcohol volumes, and this is both due to climate change and the fact that we list many more New World wines.
‘It Ain’t Half Hot’
After all, more sunshine and heat means riper grapes with higher sugar levels, which consequently leads to more alcohol. These days many red wines are between 14% – 15% in strength and drinking half a bottle or more of wine this strong can have a much bigger effect on the body than wine at 11 or 12%. There’s even a fair bit of rumour that many wines actually under-declare their volume on the label. According to the UK labelling law, the alcohol volume must be rounded up or down to the nearest half degree, so a wine at 14.2% will be labelled 14%.
High Alcohol, High Price
There is, in fact, a distinct disadvantage for wines to be declared above 15% on the label, as this immediately attracts a much higher alcohol tax. At the time of writing this, it would be £2.53 as compared to £1.90 (under 15%) per standard 75cl bottle of wine. Remember there is also VAT put on this tax at 20% also! At the other end of the scale, sadly there is no alcohol tax relief on low-alcohol wines until you reach 5.5% or less. A strange system really, at a time there is so much in the news about the dangers of excess alcohol. And why we should be paying more for the gas in our sparkling wines (even though they are usually only 12% alcohol) is another curiosity (£2.44 per bottle as compared to £1.90 for still wine of same strength).
The Balance of Nature
Alcohol volume in wines isn’t just about climate, it’s also about trends and style choices. If choosing to harvest later when the grapes are riper, the resulting wine will more likely be richer, more intense and of bigger flavour and alcohol, which has been a popular well-liked (and successful in wine competitions) style. This is all very well if the components of flavour are in balance and we would agree that some of our very best and most expressive wines, fall into this category.
So, how to change back to lowering alcohol levels? Not easy, as vignerons and winemakers must be careful not to alter the overall structure and appeal of their wines too much. Careful work in the vineyard, with which organic and biodynamic producers may often have a head start in will help, such as the use of compost and manual tilling of the soil. This coupled with canopy (the vine leaves which through photosynthesis produce the sugars in grapes) management, pruning decisions, use of biodynamic sprays etc can all help grapes reach optimum physiological ripeness at a time the sugar ripeness of the grape is not too elevated resulting in the unwanted excessively high alcohol volumes.
As you might (or might not) expect, technological methods have been developed to adjust alcohol levels in commercial wine. There are reverse osmosis and spinning cone methods which both extract alcohol from the wine by somewhat unnatural methods, we know of no organic producers using these methods for organic wines. No doubt there might be GM yeasts to do the same job appearing soon, (Chateau 11.75% anyone?!). Why not just add water? Well, that solution is banned for all wine production – though water into wine does sound familiar!
The Choice is Yours
We fully support the rights of consumers to make choices and have therefore re-introduced alcohol volumes in both our Wine List and website when they fall outside the average 12.5% – 13.5% range. We would (and do) encourage some of our producers to move towards lowering the alcohol in their wines by a half or one per cent, when conditions allow for it, but at the same time would always encourage them to make their best quality and most balanced wine for the enjoyment of you, the wine lover. Alcohol volumes are specific quite often to the vintage, and we make every effort to keep this up to date. If in doubt please feel free to check with us on the phone.
Drinking a higher alcohol wine might lead to a worse ‘morning after’ feeling, but we would suggest that drinking more water and drinking with or after food only will help, or of course, simply drinking a little less!
Lower Alcohol Organic Wines
As yet we only have one truly low-alcohol wine (5.5% or lower) from innovative Italian producer, Giol. Made using a blend of his organic Merlot wine blended with fruit juices and lightly carbonating, he has been able to make a delicious 5.5% drink which can be likened to ‘sparkling Sangria’. Refreshing, light and fruity it can be enjoyed anytime by most people very easily, either chilled, over ice or at room temperature.