With holiday merrymaking (and, one hopes, hangovers) a fading memory, moderation is on the menu in many homes. You can ban alcohol, but that penance is too severe for some of us. A more enticing solution: lower-alcohol wines. Not de-alcoholized, but bottles naturally imbued with, say, 12.5 per cent or less.
I receive disconsolate letters on the subject regularly, some from readers advised by doctors to cut back. They underscore a blunt reality: Alcohol has been creeping up during the past quarter-century – by some estimates, 1.5 percentage points.
The rise of warm-climate regions, such as California, Southeast Australia and much of Chile and Argentina, accounts for some of the gain. Sun yields higher levels of grape sugars. Yeast feeds off sugar to produce alcohol. Blammo.
Fashion is another factor. Quality-oriented producers have been chasing bolder, more concentrated flavours, allowing grapes to hang longer on the vine in autumn. In many cases, they prune more assiduously to coax vines into faster ripening. Again, more sugar, more ethanol.
Alcohol-wary consumers are not always simply minding health or road safety. That extra percentage or two can taste hot, even medicinal.
"When it's above 14 per cent, it has a burning sensation in your mouth," said Hennie van Vuuren, director of the Wine Research Centre and the Eagles Chair in Biotechnology at the University of British Columbia.
Dr. van Vuuren adds that one of best wines he has enjoyed, Château Lafite from the legendary 1961 Bordeaux vintage, tipped the scales at a mere 10.5 per cent. "I can drink almost a barrel without getting intoxicated," he quipped, though such a barrel today would be valued at more than a typical university-research grant. Lafite's 2010 vintage, by the way, weighed in at 13.5 per cent.
It's a double-edged sword, though. Grapes that have failed to ripen physiologically yield bitter flavours. This is especially noticeable in reds, which derive much of their structure from potentially astringent tannins, solid particles present in skins, seeds and stems. "Green" tannins are the bugbear of red winemaking.
Maturation is a delicate dance. In warm regions, sugar levels accelerate ahead of physiological ripening, forcing producers to push for longer hang times to weed out the green. By the time those tannins soften, sugars can enter the danger zone. Presto: 15-per-cent alcohol.
It's less of a problem in the best, cooler-climate vineyards, notably in Europe, where, for complex reasons linked not just to weather but also to soil composition, physiological ripeness can be achieved in a 12.5-per-cent wine that won't fry brains.
Fear of frying may be the root of a more insidious industry practice: the tendency to understate alcohol levels. In a study of 91,432 wines from vineyards around the world produced during a 16-year period, researchers found last year that 57.1 per cent contained more alcohol than stated on the label. Among those, the average alcohol was 13.6 per cent versus a declared average of 13.1 per cent.
Incidentally, the study, published by the American Association of Wine Economists and co-written in part by George Soleas, senior vice-president of logistics and quality assurance at the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, based its findings on wines sold in Ontario. The reason? Ontario is one of the few jurisdictions to test alcohol on every product.
Lowball reporting is largely legal because various governments permit significant latitude between fact and fiction. The LCBO permits a tolerance of plus or minus one percentage point for wines at less than 14 per cent; for higher-alcohol wines, it's plus or minus 0.5. In the United States, a producer can understate by as much as 1.5 percentage points. That's a substantial error margin, deceptively placing many wines in the hot, head-numbing zone – it's like secretly adding roughly half a glass of wine to every bottle you think you've consumed.
Based on informal discussions with winemakers, the study's authors reported that some "admitted that they deliberately chose to understate the alcohol content on a wine label, within the range of error permitted by the law, because they believed that it would be advantageous for marketing the wine to do so." In other words, Château Fruit Bomb believes that consumers are turned off by big alcohol. (Another incentive for distortion: Wines with more than 14 per cent generally are charged a higher tax rate.)
Other questionable practices are taking root to assuage consumer fear. Some producers resort to such technologies as reverse osmosis and spinning cones to extract alcohol, but these tweaks can yield off-balance wines. Then there's the blunt garden-hose method: adding water, which is illegal in many regions.
Decry high-octane reds we may, but there is one advantage to excessive alcohol (besides the fact that it can make Ashton Kutcher's lines in Two and a Half Men sound funny). "It binds the free water in the wine and enhances the body," Dr. van Vuuren said. "The wine becomes more viscous." Velvety bombs are prized by many consumers, not to mention wine critics.
But if you're moderation-inclined, I'd suggest looking to regions and grapes that tend toward demure alcohol levels. White wines are generally harvested earlier and tend to have lower alcohol levels than reds. Off-dry whites, usually bottled before yeasts have converted all the sugar to alcohol, have among the lowest. Cool regions with shorter growing seasons are an especially fertile field. Think Canada, cooler vineyards of France (especially the Loire Valley, but also Bordeaux), northeast Italy (home of Valpolicella) and Germany.
Certain styles are also worth exploring, such as sparkling wine, whose grapes tend to be harvested early, Australian semillon, vinho verde from Portugal and moscato d'Asti, a lightly sweet Italian white with about 5 to 6 per cent alcohol.
The accompanying sidebar lists a few selections I enjoyed recently. But don't take my word for the alcohol levels; I'm just going by the labels.
Cave de Lugny Brut Crémant de Bourgogne 2008 (11.5% alcohol by volume; dry sparkling white; France; $19.95)
Summerhill Pyramid Cipes Rose Pinot Noir (12%; dry sparkling rosé; B.C.; $29.95)
Sue-Ann Staff Semi-Dry Riesling 2008 (10%; lightly sweet white; Niagara; $14.95)
Hinterbrook Riesling 2010 (12.4%; off-dry white; Niagara; $17.95)
Paul Anheuser Schlossbockelheimer Konigsfels Riesling Kabinett 2009 (10%; off-dry white; Germany; $17.95)
Mont'Albano Pinot Grigio 2010 (12%; dry white; Italy; $16.95)
Cave Cidis Morges 2010 (12%; dry white; Switzerland; $18.95)
Uggiano Prestige Chianti 2009 (12.5%; red; Italy; $15.95)
Trivento Amado Sur 2009 (12% red; Argentina; $15)
ERA Merlot Veneto 2009 (12.5%; red; Italy; $9.95)