Historically, wine (most of which was produced in Europe) didn’t contain that much alcohol. It’s not uncommon nowadays to see wines in the 16-plus per cent range, but historically, most were in the 12.5 and 14 per cent range. These limits were generally a function of climate (how much sugar is in the grapes to be converted into alcohol) and also a function of the yeast responsible for this conversion. Most yeast strains shut down and die towards the higher ranges of alcohol content.
Around the 1980s, alcohol levels started creeping up. It was a combination of several factors, including a little bit of global warming, the emergence of critics such as Robert Parker and his 100 point scores, which favoured big, powerful, alcoholic wines, and the intense flavours pleasing to American palates that come with riper fruits and boozier wine. Soon, somehow, it became possible to buy table wine with alcohol levels of over 18 per cent. These wines are closer to port in terms of alcohol than classic red wines.
It is generally only in warmer climates that alcohol can naturally get this high, so most of these full-throttle wines come from places like Australia and California from grapes such as zinfandel and shiraz.
A place for high-alcohol wInes?
So, is there a problem? It depends. There is a place for high alcohol wines, to be sure, but they are also a fatiguing style of wine to enjoy and aren’t really suitable for everyday tipples. These wines are great for high-powered business lunches with big steaks, but then your day is shot, since an 8-oz. glass of 18 per cent alcohol wine is a bit like drinking three or four whisky sodas.
The fruit characters are great in these wines, typically with jammy, riper fruit, but they also typically lack refinement or elegance. So instead of reaching for your favourite busty shiraz when you feel like a casual glass, why not try these picks that won’t burn your palate and ruin your day.
6 great low-alcohol wines
St. Urbans-Hof Wiltinger Alte Reban Riesling, Mosel, Germany
This is a tasty bottle of riesling that’s perfect for reminding your palate how good riesling really is. It has plenty of apple, fruit and mineral characters, and at 10.5 per cent alcohol, it is quite dry too. $25
Domaine de Bourdieu Bordeaux, France
This organic Bordeaux is a blend of classic red varietals with a bit of earthiness and traditional Bordeaux flavours. At only 13.5 per cent, it’s suitable for both lunch and dinner. Match up with a meaty stew or some vegetarian lasagne. $18
Kim Crawford Pinot Noir, Marlborough, New Zealand
This popular pinot (13.5 per cent) is packed with tart cherry and raspberry fruits with peppery spice. Its food-friendly acids make it perfect with salmon, duck or almost anything. $20
It’s hard to believe this wine is only $25. With earthy fruits and a little spice, it’s wonderfully easy to drink and is a perfect match with any Italian fare but especially meaty or red sauces. It’s only 13.5 per cent alcohol, and it’s even suitable for cellaring.
Twin Vines Vinho Verde, Portugal
Vinho Verde is still shaking off a bad reputation, but this slightly off-dry, slightly fizzy, crisp white wine is perfect with seafood, light and healthy appetizers and poultry. The 10 per cent alcohol level means you can have a glass and still be productive. $12
JoieFarm Riesling, Canada
I am a big fan of what Canada can accomplish with riesling and love what JoieFarm does with this beautiful grape. With lots of mineral and crisp fruits, it’s quite dry and made in the style of Alsace, which is good. At 12.4 percent it’s close to bone dry and good to drink now or lay down in your cellar. $31