The light programme: Tasting & matching low abv wines

09 June 2016

With alcohol levels increasingly important for consumers, it’s more important than ever to keep an eye out for lower-strength offerings. Clinton Cawood joins a tasting panel to explore low abv wines


Some of the trendiest, cooler-climate styles of wine have always been associated with lower alcohol levels – crisp, elegant whites clocking in between 10% and 12% abv. But as wine drinkers become increasingly aware of their alcohol consumption, having a well-rounded lower-alcohol offering has never been more important.

But are the wines out there? Are winemakers succeeding in keeping alcohol levels down while still making characterful, interesting wines? And are UK merchants making them available here? We called in an array of
lower-abv wines to find out.

While we could have filled this tasting with Ausleses, German Riesling and Vinho Verde, we deliberately included a selection from unexpected regions too, in the hopes of finding as broad a spectrum of styles as possible. We also only included dry wines.

What you’ll find in the results is confirmation that some of the established lower-alcohol regions are putting their experience and expertise to good use, while some unexpected regions are succeeding in reducing abv too.

Panel
Clinton Cawood, Imbibe; Rebecca Coates, Hakkasan; Alastair England, Zuma and Oblix; Leah Kirkland, Trinity; Erin Summers, Alyn Williams at the Westbury; Ben Van de Meutter, Shepherd Market Wine House

HOW IT WORKS
We asked UK agents to provide lists of the wines in their portfolios that were 12% abv and below, and no more than about 5g/l of residual sugar. From these we selected a range of wines from various wine regions, and tasted these blind with a team of sommeliers. Tasters were aware of the price, region, grape variety and abv of each wine. Each was scored out of 20, taking value for money into account. Scores were collated to obtain a percentage score, with only wines over 60% being listed here. All prices listed are ex-VAT trade, and prices were correct at the time of tasting.


RESULTS

WHITES
86 Domaine de la Sénéchalière, La Bohème Melon Bourgogne 2014, Loire, France
‘Interesting notes of tomato leaf and blood orange, leading to mandarin and apple on the palate. There’s a match for richer fish dishes’ AE. ‘Natural in style, with baked golden apple. A super juicy, crisp and crunchy wine,’ LK.
12% abv, £10.25, Les Caves de Pyrène, 01483 538820

84 Eschenhof Holzer, Wagram Grüner Veltliner 2015, Wagram, Austria
‘A pretty nose of white flowers, with stonefruit and melon. Very versatile on a list – a match for spicy dishes, like a lobster roll,’ RC. ‘Classic Grüner flavours, with some savoury radish and green bean, zesty lime, and great wet stone aromas. All you want at that price,’ ES.
12% abv, £6, Red Squirrel Wine, 020 3490 1210

80 Wirsching Scheurebe 2014, Franken, Germany
‘Light spritz, delicate apple, melon, peach and apricot, not to mention some nice acidity. Great with a seafood salad,’ ES. ‘An almost-honeyed note to start leads to some real vibrancy on the tangy, zippy palate, with fresh nectarine notes,’ CC.
11.5% abv, £9.70, The Wine Barn, 01256 391211

79 Villa Chiòpris, Sauvignon Blanc DOC Friuli Grave 2015, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Italy
‘Elegant and crisp, with white peach flavours. Nice on its own, but also with spaghetti alla vongole,’ BM. ‘Juicy fruit on the nose leads to a well-balanced, fresh palate, with white peach and melon, and a mineral note too,’ LK.
12% abv, £7.71, Eurowines, 0870 162 1424

78 Clemens Busch, Estate Riesling Trocken 2014, Mosel, Germany
‘Restrained, refined and elegant, there’s a flintiness on the palate that’s joined by fresh lemon and grapefruit,’ CC. ‘Typically Riesling – clean and fresh. Nice, light mixed summer fruit on the palate, leading to a lingering finish,’ BM.
11.5% abv, £11.10, The Wine Barn, 01256 391211

78 Pikes Wines, Riesling Traditionale 2015, Clare Valley, South Australia, Australia
‘Packed with lots of ripe fruit – melon, peach and some tropical flavours. Great vibrant acidity too,’ ES. ‘Apple and pear on the nose, with lime coming to the fore on the palate. That burst of flavour leads to a long, dry finish. A good match for a salmon and dill dish,’ AE.
12% abv, £8.77, Seckford Agencies, 01206 231188

78 Two Paddocks Riesling 2013, Central Otago, New Zealand
‘Undeniably Riesling, with the start of some diesel aromas developing. There’s generosity on the palate, but with appealing minerality. A bit on the pricey side, but a very good example,’ CC. ‘With its hints of petrol, this bright, fresh wine would be well suited to light dishes,’ RC.
12% abv, £15.61, Negociants UK, 01582 797510

78 Tyrrell’s Wines, Vat 1 Hunter Semillon 2010, Hunter Valley, Australia
‘Great acidity and fruit. Less body than you’d expect from Semillon, but it doesn’t lack anything,’ ES. ‘Plenty of character, and yet it retains its elegance. There’s a slight spiciness towards the finish too,’ CC.
11.5% abv, £19.90, John E Fells & Sons, 01442 870900

77 Bremerton Fiano 2013, Langhorne Creek, South Australia, Australia
‘More Riesling in style than Fiano, this has a juicy palate balanced by plenty of acidity,’ CC. ‘Full and packed with flavour. This is a versatile wine that would be good by the glass,’ RC.
12% abv, £8.73, Seckford Agencies, 01206 231188

77 Domaine Ménard-Gaborit, Muscadet Sèvre et Maine Sur Lie 2014, Muscadet, France
‘Green and herbaceous, with a dry finish and some greengage-skin bitterness,’ LK. ‘Classic Muscadet sur lie, with lemon and lime notes predominant – a quality wine, with good body and texture,’ ES.
12% abv, £6.53, Goedhuis & Co, 020 7793 7900

77 Leone de Castris, Locorotondo DOC 2015, Puglia, Italy
‘Floral and delicate, with peach, apricot, and some orange blossom, plus good acidity and stony minerality,’ ES. ‘Engaging from the start, with floral and citrus notes, and a lean and elegant palate,’ CC.
12% abv, £7.05, Eurowines, 0870 162 1427

77 Mount Pleasant, Elizabeth Cellar Aged Semillon 2007, Hunter Valley, Australia
‘Typical Semillon – herbal, with a creamy butteriness. Great with époisse or a warm vacherin,’ BM. ‘Vibrant, with a smoky note. A leaner palate than the nose suggests, with an appealing pithiness.
A white wine to pair with charcuterie,’ CC.
11% abv, £10.50, Sogrape UK, 01865 263308

77 Peter Jakob Kühn, Jacobus Riesling Trocken 2014, Rheingau, Germany
‘Instantly recognisable as Riesling, with good concentration and good balance between fruit and acidity,’ ES. ‘Apricot and peach to start, leading to a slightly bitter, herbal finish,’ LK.
11.5% abv, £9.80, Tanners Wine Merchants, 01743 234400

76 Brokenwood Semillon 2014, Hunter Valley, Australia
‘Toasty, with citrus fruit, grip and length. Would work with mild curry,’ RC. ‘Refreshing acidity with light lemon and apple. Lingers on the palate. A summer wine to pair with fresh watermelon,’ AE.
11% abv, £13.85, Negociants UK, 01582 797510

76 Château Moncontour, Vouvray Sec 2014, Loire, France
‘Savoury notes on the nose, with fuller peach and apricot on the palate, and a lime finish,’ ES. ‘Great texture and rich body, with pear and apple A good pairing with fish and chips,’ AE.
12% abv, £7.67, Sogrape UK, 01865 263308

76 The Pawn Wine Company, The Austrian Attack Grüner Veltliner 2014, Adelaide Hills, Australia
‘Aromatic, with limes and pears. A bold wine, and maybe not typically Grüner,’ AE. ‘Freshly-washed bitter leaves and peach jubes, leading to super-ripe stone fruit, such as juicy peach, and some bitter almond. A gazpacho match,’ LK.
11.5% abv, £8.45, Seckford Agencies, 01206 231188

75 Torre Solar, Macabeo Sobre Lias 2014, La Mancha, Spain
‘Fragrant and approachable, with bright, appealing fruit. Good citrus and stonefruit, and at an excellent price,’ CC. ‘Full of flavour – peach and apricot, notably. Very ripe, with good acidity.’ ES.
12% abv, £5.62, Alliance Wine, 01505 506090

75 Tselepos, Mantinia Moschofilero 2014, Arcadia, Peloponnese, Greece
‘Shy and retiring at first, there’s a burst of fresh flavour on the palate, with a touch of minerality to finish things off,’ CC. ‘Hints of honeysuckle and mandarin make this great on its own, or with fish dishes,’ RC.
12% abv, £7.76, Amathus, 020 8951 9840

74 Caves de la Loire, Chenin Blanc ‘Wally’ 2015, Loire, France
‘Brisk and fresh, with juicy lemon notes. Mouthwatering, balanced and effortless,’ CC. ‘Stoney minerality, with citrus acidity typical of Loire Chenin on the palate,’ ES.
11.5% abv, £6.50, Liberty Wines, 020 7720 5354

73 La Scolca, Gavi dei Gavi DOCG 2014, Piedmont, Italy
‘A fruity nose, with an almond-skin note on the palate. A very good, classic example,’ RC. ‘Abundant citrus, leading
to an elegant, restrained palate,’ CC.
12% abv, £21.48, Eurowines, 0870 162 1422

72 Domaine de Pellehaut, Tanners Gascony Dry White, VdP des Côtes de Gascogne 2014, Gascony, France
‘Pear and apple aromas lead to an expressive palate. Well-paired with fresh fruit salads,’ AE. ‘A good, flavoursome all-round crowd pleaser, with mandarin, nectarine and tropical fruits,’ RC.
11% abv, £5.98, Tanners Wine Merchants, 020 7357 0244

72 Eschenhof Holzer, Zero-G Grüner Veltliner 2014, Wagram, Austria
‘Ripeness on the nose, with white peach and some unripe apricot too. Spritzy, bright and saline,’ LK. ‘Subtle, pretty and delicate, with notes of mandarin. Would match crispy salads with fruit,’ RC.
12% abv, £7.75, Berkmann Wine Cellars, 020 7609 4711

71 Weingüt Göttelmann, Black Slate Riesling drt 2014, Nahe, Germany
‘Steely pear skin aromas, with juicy pear on the palate,’ LK. ‘Juicy, with stonefruit and peach. Pair with a summer salad,’ RC.
12% abv, £9.60, The Wine Barn, 01256 391211


70
Bodegas Ochoa, Calendas Bianco 2015, Navarra, Spain

‘Juicy, fruity and bold, with stonefruit and ripe pear,’ RC. ‘Aromatic, with a very appealing savoury note too,’ CC.
12% abv, £5.73, Amathus, 020 8951 9840

70 Gruber Röschitz, Weinviertel Grüner Veltliner 2014, Röschitz, Niederösterreich, Austria
‘Fresh, with green melon and apple. A soft, supple wine,’ LK. ‘This would pair with nigiri and maki rolls, able to balance both rice and spicy wasabi flavours,’ AE.
12% abv, £7.45, Amathus, 020 8951 9840

70 Sogrape, Quinta de Azevedo 2014, Vinho Verde, Portugal
‘Delicate peach and apricot, with acidity in balance,’ ES. ‘Fresh and gently sparkling. Summer match with a salade niçoise,’ BM.
10.5% abv, £7, Sogrape UK, 01865 263308

68 Pala, Silenzi Bianco, Vermentino/Nuragus 2014, Isola dei Nuraghi, Sardinia, Italy
‘Light citrus aromas lead to some nice weight on the palate,’ AE. ‘Vanilla and spice, leading to a finish with some oak. Good with charred brassica dishes,’ RC.
12% abv, £6.13, Berkmann Wine Cellars, 020 7609 4712

65 Quinta da Lixa, Vinho Verde Anjos de Portugal 2015, Sousa, Portugal
‘A classic style – lime blossom, as well as a hint of spritz,’ RC. ‘Light and aromatic, with pear, apple and lime fruit,’ AE.
10.5% abv, £6.10, Berkmann Wine Cellars, 020 7609 4713

ALSO TASTED: Domaine Les Hauts Pémions, Muscadet Sèvre et Maine sur Lie 2014, Loire, France; Les Vignerons d’Aghione, U San Muletto, Ile de Beauté 2014, Corsica, Italy; Pasaeli, Yapıncak 2015, Tekirdag, Turkey

ROSÉS

73 The Drift Farm, Year of the Rooster Touriga Franca Rosé 2015, Overberg, South Africa
‘Good cherry and raspberry flavours give this some richness on the palate, which continues to the finish,’ AE. ‘Strawberry, raspberry and cherry lead to good, refreshing length on the palate,’ ES.
11.6% abv, £10.67, Alliance Wine, 01505 506060

71 Rogers & Rufus Rosé 2015, Barossa, Australia
‘Steel and spearmint on the nose lead to a dry palate, with a succulent finish,’ LK. ‘A refreshing rosé. Strawberry and raspberry notes make this a good wine for summer vegetable salads,’ AE.
12% abv, £8.74, Negociants UK, 01582 797510

REDS

76 Farnese, Fantini Sangiovese IGT Terre di Chieti 2013, Abruzzo, Italy
‘A very appealing nose of white pepper and cedarwood. This is silky smooth, with ripe cherries on the palate. A match with a wild forest mushroom terrine,’ BM. ‘Crunchy, bright and fresh, with some tart cherry notes, and a tiny bit of vanilla. Match with charcuterie,’ LK.
12% abv, £6.75, Liberty Wines, 020 7720 5353

68 Montsablé Pinot Noir 2014, Languedoc, France
‘Already showing some development and savoury and floral aromas. Light, with ashy minerality and a burst of lemon on the finish,’ CC. ‘Dried red fruit, and fresh acidity that accentuates the tannins,’ ES.
12% abv, £6.93, Alliance Wine, 01505 506060

68 Domaines des Vignes du Maynes, Beaujolais-Leynes Haut de Balmont 2013, Beaujolais, France
‘Expressive, with ripe cherry and strawberry, a slight farmyard note, and some tannins,’ AE. ‘Lots of juicy fruit – a match for cold meats and cheese,’ RC.
10.5% abv, £15.45, Les Caves de Pyrène, 01483 538820

66 Nicolas Carmarans, L’Olto Rouge 2013, Aveyron, France
‘Purple fruit and a herbal note. A juicy, pure expression of the south, without all the alcohol!’ LK.
10.5% abv, £13.35, Les Caves de Pyrène, 01483 538820


Panel comments

Clinton Cawood, Imbibe
‘There wasn’t nearly as much compromise as I was expecting to see here. The vast majority didn’t lose anything by coming in under 12% abv. Some regions were clearly more accustomed to doing without those extra few percentage points – but there were some great examples from unexpected quarters too. If these wines exist at 12% abv and below, with little, if any, compromise in flavour, there seems no reason for restaurants not to seek them out.’

Rebecca Coates, Hakkasan
‘I think people are definitely more conscious of how much alcohol they consume. At Hakkasan we publish the abv on the wine list. As a piece of info, it’s more useful than the village. I did think it was encouraging to see so many wines at these lower alcohol levels, and with plenty of character. Styles ranged from the mineral and austere to the juicy and fruity. These weren’t wintery wines though, so seasonality is a consideration here.’

Alastair England, Zuma and Oblix
‘If people want to drink lower alcohol wines, champagne and sparkling wine are an option. But I think the decision is often driven by flavour rather than abv – people associate lighter alcohol with wines that are lighter on the palate. Sometimes there is that correlation, but not always. Some winemakers take it too far – some lacked food-friendliness because of out-of-balance acidity.’

Leah Kirkland, Trinity
‘Global warming has played its part in bringing about an awareness of abv, with well-known regions struggling to keep alcohol levels below 15%. We’re therefore looking to cooler climates that can produce wines that reflect the winemaking of a few years ago. The increasing demand comes mainly from consumers being more health conscious – one guest wrote a complaint letter to us because we didn’t list abvs on our list. In this tasting there were a few wines that didn’t come to full phenolic ripeness, but the German Rieslings proved that low-abv wines can shine.’

Erin Summers, Alyn Williams at the Westbury
‘I’d obviously recommend some of the lighter wines here as aperitifs, but some, such as the Navarra, packed a lot of flavour and would be great with food. I don’t think these were sacrificing flavour to hit a lower abv. Besides, a lower alcohol level can be a positive when pairing with food, making wines a little less intense.’

Ben Van de Meutter, Shepherd Market Wine House
‘You have to let the wine do its natural thing – if it’s in balance, you’ll never notice the alcohol. That said, there were wines here that weren’t forced. Those from cooler climates are easier to keep at a lower abv. If you’re concerned with alcohol levels, this is where you need to be looking.’


Thanks to Upstairs at Trinity for hosting the tasting, and for all of their help. Photos by Justine Trickett.

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