“What exactly is the point?” I’ve found this to be the almost universal reaction to low- and no-alcohol wine among both wine lovers and people in the wine trade. To be honest, it isn’t something I seriously considered either—until I spent many months between late 2016 and the present either pregnant or nursing. As a wine professional (and Master of Wine student for some of that time), it gave me pause.
Though pregnancy is one obvious reason someone might wish to curb their alcohol consumption, I quickly realised I wasn’t alone. The reasons are myriad, from inability to process alcohol (pretty common in southern China), to any number of health issues, religious prohibitions, as well as needing to drive, operate machinery or otherwise stay clear-headed. Maybe you just enjoyed dry January so much you’ve become “sober-curious.”
Given this abundance of reasons, other low- or no-alcohol beverages such as Seedlip, a non-alcoholic spirit, are going gangbusters. In markets where cannabinoids are legal, CBD and THC-infused beverages, which in many jurisdictions can’t contain alcohol, are another factor driving the no-alcohol trend. However, wine (as usual) has been a bit slow to catch on, with the category’s growth lagging until recently.
It may have something to do with the legal definitions, which are confusing and largely designed for the beer industry. In the UK, for instance, there are three categories: low-alcohol (under 1.2%), de-alcoholised (under 0.5%) and alcohol-free (0.05% or less), all much lower than any naturally achievable wine. A wine at 5.5% alcohol is technically a “reduced alcohol” wine, rather than “low alcohol” and actually needs a special dispensation to be called wine at all, since in the EU “wine” must be at least 8.5%.
Technologies used to reduce or remove alcohol in wine—including the sci-fi sounding reverse osmosis and spinning cone—can also be rough on it from a taste perspective, sucking out some of the key aromas and textural components with the booze. Hence, truly enjoyable alcohol-free “wines” are few and far between (I recommend mocktails instead). A better bet is generally low-ish alcohol wines from cool climates or grape varieties such as riesling that can ripen at lower sugar levels, ultimately yielding lower alcohol levels. But these are more or less restricted to white wines, which is not great news for our red-loving continent.
Sweet wines—at least those that aren’t fortified—are often naturally lower in alcohol than other wines because some of the sugar has been left unfermented; but not so if the grapes were dried, frozen, harvested very late or infected by noble rot beforehand to concentrate the sugars. Plus, for sufferers of gout, diabetes and other metabolic diseases, sugar is hardly a healthy swap-out for alcohol.
Though I made the personal decision to go cold turkey on alcohol while pregnant, during the times when I’ve been open to a little more alcohol (in the late stages of nursing my son, for example), I was happy when I found wines that were at the lower end of normal: say 12.5% for red wine instead of 14.5%. So, in the guide that follows, I’ve included everything from completely alcohol-free options to those that just pack a slightly weaker punch to fit whatever your alcohol reduction needs may be.
These sophisticated wines go all the way down to 0% ABV:
Featherweight: 12.5% and under
Bolney Pinot Noir West Sussex 2016 (12%): As the climate warms, wine lovers are looking to England for cool climate wines—and the still pinots are garnering a lot of excitement. Bolney has gone all in with its effort, choosing the grapes from its ripest sites and gently maturing the wines in oak, while still respecting the fruit’s underlying delicacy (don’t expect any over-extracted, brambly purple fruit here).
Rivera Pungirosa Bombino Nero Castel del Monte Rosato 2018 (12%): Rosé is typically lower in alcohol and grapes that evolved in warm climates, such as Puglia’s Bombino Nero grape, are often naturally late ripening and tend to gain sugar slowly. This one is a delicate pale hue with pink strawberry and white pepper and zingy piquancy, finishing clean, lean and tight.
Quinta do Ameal Loureiro Vinho Verde 2017 (11.5%): A hero producer in a category not known for its seriousness, this wine stars the focused, citrussy loureiro grape (as opposed to the blends favoured by most vinho Verde producers), creating a finely etched, clear-eyed rendering of this lush, hilly green area of Portugal.
McWilliam’s Hunter Valley Semillon Lovedale 2005 (11.5%): Warm Hunter Valley in New South Wales isn’t a place you’d expect to find low-alcohol wines, but this idiosyncratic style of Semillon—picked early and designed for long ageing—is a clear exception. At 14 years old, this bone-dry, naturally low-alcohol white is an unfairly forgotten classic. Piercing, lemony acid is softened by the waxy mellowness of age.
Gramona III Lustros 2011 (11%): Many people think champagne when they want low alcohol, but Spain’s cava often wins out with the health-conscious crowd because of its low added sugar. Watch out for the bubbles though, as they accelerate alcohol absorption. Biodynamically farmed Gramona is an insider favourite, and Lustros is its star, with its lightly smoky, savoury cereal nose and clean, bright lucidity.