The highs and lows of alcohol

Detail of Hogarth's Gin Lane

A version of this article is published by the Financial Times. A detail from Hogarth's Gin Lane above.

This here pandemic is making us rethink our relationships with many things – workplace, travel, family, face masks, for instance – and alcohol. For all of us confined between four walls 24 hours a day, the cocktail/wine/beer hour has been an extremely welcome, not to say keenly anticipated, punctuation of routine. So welcome that, to judge from my constant diet of BBC Radio 4, an increasing number of people have been starting to worry about their alcohol consumption during lockdown.

To do its job of separating day from night, the early evening drink has to be differentiated from what we drink during the day. But of course it doesn’t absolutely have to contain alcohol. Beer drinkers have been able to choose from quite a wide range of no- and low-alcohol beers that taste pretty good. And now spirits drinkers are spoilt for teetotal choice. But it has long been the complaint of wine drinkers that no- and low-alcohol wines just don’t do the trick.

Developing a no-alcohol wine that tastes good is regarded as the holy grail by the world’s biggest wine companies but in my experience they are yet to find it. Torres of Catalonia are usually ahead of the game and their Natureo range of no-alcohol wines (£5.99 Waitrose) is better than most, but Natureo bottles I’ve sampled always linger longest in my out tray of samples to give away. The problem is that, thanks to warmer and warmer summers, conventional wine is usually nowadays about 12.5% to 14.5% alcohol. To get rid of that amount of alcohol requires a pretty bruising physical process.

As Arnica Rowan described on Monday, Dr John Forrest of Marlborough in New Zealand about 10 years ago came up with a way of making low- (not no-) alcohol wine more naturally. Since it is sugars in grapes that are fermented into alcohol, and since it is the photosynthesis that results from sunlight on vine leaves that builds up those sugars, Forrest reckoned that if you dramatically cut off leaves during the ripening process, and did everything else just right, you would end up with a lower-alcohol wine with completely natural wine flavours. The Doctors’ range of varietals from Forrest (both John and his wife are doctors) is a beacon of vinosity in an increasingly abstemious world.

Tasting them recently I found the best of the current range, which also includes a rosé and a slightly puny Pinot Noir, to be the Sauvignon Blanc 2019 and the Riesling 2019, and over the years these are the two varietals that have consistently stood out for me. Both have New Zealand wine’s usual palate-tingling crispness, with the residual sugar in the Sauvignon a little over 5 g/l, and the Riesling, which certainly doesn’t taste sweeter than off dry, 37 g/l.

In a fine wine, residual sugar represents the grape sugars that have not been fermented into alcohol, and Germany has a long tradition of making low-alcohol Rieslings that retain some unfermented sugar. It’s not difficult to find beautiful wines in Germany’s coolest regions such as the Saar valley that are only 7 or 8% alcohol. They contain quite a bit of unfermented sugar but the acidity is usually so high that they hardly taste sweet. (Really sweet German wines labelled Beerenauslese or Trockenbeerenauslese are seriously sweet, even less potent and are made in such tiny quantities that they cost a bomb – but you probably wouldn’t choose a £500 syrup as your aperitif of choice.)

Other proper wines that are naturally low in alcohol also tend to be sweet. Lightly sparkling Asti and Moscato d’Asti are generally only about 5% alcohol and good ones exist.

In southern France some smaller producers make deliberately light wines. Domaine de Colombette’s Plume range is physically reduced to 9% alcohol, which is the level they reckon the wine actually tastes recognisably wine-y. Just west of Cahors, Rigal make an early-picked Colombard Côtes de Gascogne that is just 9.5%, but the acidity is pretty punishing.

One option is more radical, to go for a – gasp – non-alcoholic drink. Three Spirit drinks claim to be the world's first plant-powered functional social elixir’ and report that sales have tripled during lockdown. The Livener, £24.99 for 500 ml, 50 ml to be served with ice and tonic, certainly packs quite a sophisticated spicy herbal punch.

Of even more interest to wine drinkers perhaps is a non-alcoholic drink designed by a well-known wine writer. Matthew Jukes has come up with three versions of his well-packaged little phials of cider vinegar-based cordials to be served with water, still or sparkling. Citrus-dominated Jukes 1 appeals most to me; they are all £35 for a box of nine 30 ml bottles. Once diluted, each bottle is supposed to provide two 125 ml glasses notching up 16 calories each – far fewer than any glass of wine.

Calories come from both alcohol and residual sugar, so the alcoholic strength that has to marked clearly on all wine labels (although California producers seem to put it in the smallest type possible) gives a useful clue as to how fattening and hangover-inducing a wine is likely to be.

Feeling the heat

Until recently our palates could easily spot high-alcohol wines, those over 14 or 14.5%, because they left tell-tale heat in the mouth, especially on the back of the palate and in the throat. But over the last year or two I have noticed that an increasing proportion of these increasingly common high-alcohol wines don’t taste obviously hot or alcoholic at all. I asked two exceptionally well-qualified wine scientists, Axel Marchal and Valérie Lavigne of Bordeaux’s Institut des Sciences de la Vigne et du Vin (ISVV), whether they had noticed this new phenomenon and whether they had an explanation.

Lavigne replied:

‘Axel and I also note this change in the perception and quality of wines with a high alcohol level. They are much more balanced than in the past and much less hot on the finish. It seems clear to us that a few years ago, wines with a high alcohol level were produced most often from overripe grapes. During this physiological process, acids are degraded, which is a well-known phenomenon, but it is very likely that other compounds, particularly sapid compounds contributing to a soft sensation, are also degraded.

‘Today, due to climate change, and possibly cultural practices, sugars accumulate faster during grape ripening. Picked when ripe, the grapes are sometimes as sweet as grapes harvested when overripe a few years ago, but the acids, and probably the molecules contributing to sapid sensations, are better preserved. Thus, the wines made from these grapes are certainly more alcoholic, but their pH is lower, they are better balanced, fresher and probably more "tender".’

If you really want to cut down your alcohol consumption, it is more important than ever to study the small print.

Recommended low-alcohol wines

Forrest, The Doctors’ Riesling 2019 Marlborough 9%
£11.95–£13.50, Frontier Fine Wines, Gerrard Seel

Forrest, The Doctors’ Sauvignon Blanc 2019 Marlborough 9.5%
£9 Booths, Tesco, Waitrose, and Majestic (if six bottles are bought) plus all their online operations and £10.60 Frontier Fine Wines 

Marrone, Solaris 2018 Moscato d’Asti 5.5%
Various European stockists, including 99 Danish kroner Gallovini

Mongioia, Lamoscato 2017 Moscato d’Asti 5.5%
$19.99 Chambers Street Wines, NYC

Zilliken, Saarburger Rausch Riesling Kabinett 2017 Saar 8%
£19.48 Lay & Wheeler

Reinhold Haart, Piesporter Goldtröpfchen Riesling Kabinett 2017 Mosel 9%
£19.95 Noel Young Wines

J J Prüm, Graacher Himmelreich Riesling Kabinett 2017 Mosel 9%
£20.08 Lay & Wheeler

Dangerously well-balanced high-alcohol wines

All of these cite at least 15% alcohol on the label but taste beautifully balanced.

Cervoles, Les Garrigues 2016 Costers del Segre 15%
€22 various Dutch retailers

Poggerino, Bugialla Riserva 2015 Chianti Classico 15%

Clos des Papes Châteauneuf-du-Pape (virtually any vintage, and generally about 15%)
2016 is £66.75 Vintriloquy

Accendo Cellars, Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 Napa Valley 15.1%
$360 (a bottle), or £1,300 for six Latimer Vintners

Colgin, IX Estate 2016 Napa Valley 15%
$635, or £615 Noel Young (a bottle)

Full tasting notes can be found in our tasting notes database. More international stockists on