A version of this article is published by the Financial Times. Australian low-alcohol specialist Mac Forbes is pictured.
Unlike the west coast of North America, Europe has experienced an unusually damp and changeable early summer this year, which has kept vignerons on their toes with many of them spraying like mad to ward off the mildew to which vines are particularly prone. But on the basis of recent European summers it seems likely that July and August will be hot and dry. Sunburn has become a problem for grapes as well as people in winegrowing regions as far from the equator as Germany’s.
If summer 2021 is as hot as usual, those of us who drink wine and do not live in an icily air-conditioned cocoon are unlikely to find heavy, potent reds at the top of our wish list. Chilled whites and fashionable pinks are more likely to fit the bill, but there comes a time when only red will do. And some people find that white wine simply disagrees with them so drink nothing but red. (Incidentally, New Zealand Master of Wine Sophie Parker-Thomson has recently made some ground-breaking investigations into the possible causes of wine intolerances; sulphites, mentioned on practically every wine label, may not be the chief culprit.)
I thought therefore that I would suggest a few low-alcohol, often chillable, red wines. But what is low-alcohol nowadays?
High-alcohol wines were fashionable in the 1990s and early 2000s, especially in California where growers were encouraged to keep grapes on the vine so long that their sugar content soared and so too the resulting wines’ alcohol levels. At least many Californian vineyards enjoy much cooler nights than, say, Bordeaux, but in Bordeaux the effect of increasingly warm summers has been an inexorable rise in wine potency.
Liv-ex, the London-based fine wine trading platform, prides itself on the amount of data it has amassed in its 20-year history. Because of the heavy demands of post-Brexit documentation, last year Liv-ex started to log the alcohol levels of all the wines they trade and recently published some very marked trends. They recorded the alcoholic strengths of 35,000 wines provided in their vendors’ paperwork and then managed to check 20,000 of them against what was written on labels in their warehouse (which of course is not always absolutely accurate). In their presentation of the results, they grouped them by decade, starting with the 1990 vintage up to 2019.
What is clear is that, of the five regions they studied, California still produces wines with the highest alcohol levels – 14.6% on average. For the wines that Liv-ex trade in (which tend to be the most expensive), average alcohol levels in Piemonte and Tuscany come next, at just over 14%. Then comes Bordeaux at about 13.8% and Burgundy last at 13.3%.
But while average alcohol levels in California have been falling slightly recently and in Burgundy and Italy have remained pretty constant this century, they have risen fairly spectacularly in Bordeaux: from an average of 12.8% in the 1990s, to 13.4% in the first decade of this century to 13.8% in the second. This in a region once famous for providing appetising, digestible wines.
So, whereas in the 1970s 10.5% or 11% might have been considered low alcohol, today I am considering any wine with 12.5% or less on the label to qualify. And because wines this low in alcohol are relatively rare, I also asked for supplementary suggestions from other team members on JancisRobinson.com. I expected to find a few suitable candidates in our Loire and Beaujolais tasting notes, for example, but even here alcohol levels have been rising, thanks to ever-warmer summers. (I also tried a couple of no-alcohol reds but cannot recommend them.)
What’s interesting and unexpected is how many of these low-alcohol wines come from parts of the world we associate with hot summers, and therefore with very ripe grapes and particularly alcoholic wines: Greece, South Africa and Australia. In Greece high-elevation vineyards, where cool nights slow grape-ripening, tend to be the reason alcohol levels are low. In Australia (and for some California producers) there is a vogue for picking grapes relatively early to produce low-alcohol wines, a reaction to the turbocharged wines of the recent past.
All the South African candidates cited below are based on the Cinsault grape, which at one time was the country’s most-planted red wine grape variety and is now relatively inexpensive. This may be at least partly why Cinsault appeals to new-wave Cape winemakers because they rarely own their own vineyards and have to buy their grapes. They, like their Australian counterparts, are keen to moderate alcohol levels but, to judge from the wines below, Cinsault seems able to yield satisfying, fruity wines even at low alcohol levels.
All of the following are either 12 or 12.5% unless stated otherwise.
Mas Seren, Étincelle Nomade 2020 IGP Cévennes
Certified organic blend of peppery Syrah and Cinsault from the hills above the Languedoc flatlands.
£13.50 Stone, Vine & Sun
Alain Chabanon, Campredon 2017 Languedoc
Fully mature, unoaked blend of Syrah, Mourvèdre and Grenache.
£25 Dynamic Vines
Brezza 2020 Dolcetto d’Alba
Utterly Piemontese and one of the most appealing Dolcettos to have come my way. It’s delicate rather than trying to be a barrel-aged Barbera.
£15.49 Strictly Wine (sold by the case of 6 bottles)
Villa Cordevigo, Classico 2017 Bardolino
Pinot Noir-like fresh, light red from Lake Garda that my colleague Tamlyn Currin liked so much she gave it a score of 17 out of 20.
From €7.73 in Italy
Filipa Pato & William Wouters, DNMC Baga 2019 Bairrada
Baga is the defiantly firm, characterful red wine grape of Bairrada, and Filipa Pato is the daughter of the leading light of this northern wine region. Wouters is her sommelier husband.
£16.95 Wine & Greene, £17.25 Bar Douro
Azores Wine Company, Tinto Vulcânico 2018 IGP Açores
An extraordinary combination of history and geography in a glass. Organic blend of local grapes from the windswept vineyards of the mid-Atlantic volcanic archipelago that is the Azores.
£23 Amathus Drinks
Lyrarakis Liatiko 2020 PGI Crete
Youthful, fresh, aromatic wine made from Crete’s own red wine grape whose wines can be quite chewy in youth.
$18.99 Compass Wines, Washington State
Methymnaeos Chidiriotiko 2019 PGI Lesvos
Chidiriotiko is a variety local to the island of Lesbos and makes wines light in both colour and alcohol but with no shortage of character. Certified organic.
€14.90 House of Wine, Greece, but it should arrive at Kudos Wine, UK, soonish
Chatzivaritis, Carbonic Negoska 2020 PGI Slopes of Paiko
Pure crushed mulberries with an attractive bite of light tannin on the dry finish that follows an opulent palate. Most unusual and pleasing. Quintessential picnic wine? But take your ice pack.
About to be released; the 2019 is available at £23.50 Maltby & Greek and other independents in the UK, France, Germany and Greece
Birichino, Bechthold Vineyard Old Vines, Vignes Centenaires Cinsault 2018 Mokelumne River
Cinsault again – from a vineyard in Lodi planted in 1886. Very eloquent and full of pure, interesting fruit.
From $25.99 and widely available in the US
Waterkloof, Seriously Cool Cinsault 2019 Stellenbosch
The back label on this organic wine, a favourite on JancisRobinson.com since 2013, urges, ‘drink me cool but take me seriously’. I can see why they say to drink this sweet, gentle wine cool; it probably needs the lower temperature to keep it refreshing. Lowish acid and definitely low tannin but a great, easy choice for those who seek a low-alcohol red one can enjoy without food.
£10.79 Rannoch Scott Wines
Rall Cinsault 2019 Coastal Region
Aged in a mix of concrete and old oak with bright, piercing red-cherry fruit. Very round and appealing. A wine to drink pretty young – and coolish – but it is awfully pretty already. This would make a delightful red aperitif, but is arguably too light to match with very emphatic foods.
£19.50 Wine Direct, £22.95 Jeroboams
Radford Dale, Thirst Cinsault 2020 Stellenbosch
Old bush vines are unirrigated and produce a succulent, wine described as ‘joyous’ by my colleague and fellow Master of Wine Julia Harding. Very obviously designed to be enjoyed lightly chilled.
Natte Valleij Cinsaults
A range of stunning wines from different South African wine regions produced on a historic estate that specialises in this variety.
£19.99 Museum Wines
Mac Forbes, Healesville Syrah 2018 Yarra Valley
This producer has championed low-alcohol wines. We loved the 2016 but have not tasted the 2018 which is only 11.5%.
£28 The Wine Society
Forrest Estate, The Doctors’ Pinot Noir 2019 Marlborough
Only 9.5% and deliberately grown and picked to be as low in alcohol as possible, though it’s definitely a bit tart.
£13.50 Frontier Fine Wines, £13.90 Gerrard Seel
For full tasting notes, scores and suggested drinking windows see Purple Pages and for international stockists see Wine-Searcher.com
See also Tam's suggestions last January for no- and low-alcohol drinks.