The best recommended low and no alcohol wines
By Master of Wine, Christopher Burr
There comes a time for all of us, when we just don't want any more alcohol. It could be as simple as being the designated driver, or the need to be clear headed the following day. In fact I generally shy away from drinking high strength drinks...perhaps one cocktail occasionally!
But since I started enjoying and appreciating wine, fifty years ago, in my early 20's, when the average strength was 11% alcohol by volume, 12.5% in a really warm vintage, things have changed. Some wines like German Riesling were 7 to 8%, and Asti Spumante only 5%. But sweeter wines tend to be lower strength, as the residual sugar is not all converted to alcohol in the fermentation.
One can still find delicious German wines at under 10%, but the fashion for them to make dryer wines, means alcohol is creeping up. Overall average alcohol levels are now well up into the 13-14% levels. Why? Well, there is a trend to harvest riper fruit and therefore more sugar to convert to alcohol. The cynic in me makes me think that a bit more alcohol on first taste, gives a wine some extra "zip", which in wine competitions helps them do well!
Beer and cider have been on the same trend over the last 40 years. When I was brewing, the beer we sold most was Mild Ale, at 2.5-3%. The ideal beer for an evening "session" in the Club or Local Pub. How often do you see Mild these days? Bars are now full of taps of premium ales and imported lagers at 5% plus. So, I suppose it is no wonder that at some stage there would be a reversal of the trend.
I am delighted (probably the only one in the industry) to see that from 1st August, the Government are starting to encourage wine producers to keep their wines below 12.5%, with a new duty increase for wines at or over 12.5% a standard bottle. With margin and VAT on top, that is quite an incentive to make and drink lower strength.
My own experience is that the best low and no alcohol products…are ones where there is something that can be added back after the alcohol has been removed.
The most common ways to remove alcohol from Wines, Spirits, Cider or Beers is by distilling off the alcohol in a vacuum where the product reaches boiling without getting too hot and thus destroying flavours. There is also a technique called "spinning cone" where the heavier particles are separated from the light alcohol by a sort of filtration.
My own experience is that the best low and no alcohol products, be they wine, spirit, beer or cider, are ones where there is something that can be added back after the alcohol has been removed. Also 0.5% alcohol, the "low" products, makes a big difference.
Beer seems to work best, and there are some really good ales and lagers from some of the big brands. Beer works because one can add back malty character, hoppy bitterness, and the "fizz" also helps stimulate the palate. In wines, like beer, "Sparkle" or "Fizz" really helps, plus any careful use of oak, and added grape juice. Tea is also helpful in adding back flavour in wine. For spirits, Gin is undoubtedly the most successful, and the Botanicals or flavourings of juniper, orange and lemon peel, spices etc give good character, which works so well with tonic water, ice and lemon.
All the main retailers now have a selection of low and no alcohol products. Indeed, Waitrose have a whole section in their liquor isles devoted to all low and no alcohol categories.
I will focus my recommendations, on the hardest product to make flavourful as low or no alcohol, wine. I mentioned sparkling wine, where the fizz helps. Some also add grape juice and tea flavours. Virgin Wines have one of the best; Community Co. Zero Sparkling White and Rose for £5.99. An added bonus is that for every bottle 25 pence goes to NHS charities.
One of the first to explore no alcohol was the top Spanish producer Torres. Their Natureo 0% White Muscat is one of the best whites, the Muscat grape having lots of attractive aromatics. Their whole range is in Waitrose usually for £6.
The Australians are particularly active in this area too, with big brands like Hardys, who produce Zero Chardonnay (with a touch of oak) between £4-5.
McGuigan have a Zero Sauvignon Blanc (again the aromatics helping) for £4 in both Tesco and Sainsbury.
I personally scan the shelves for a 8 or 9% German Riesling, wines with residual sweetness that were formerly in top fashion at the time of Queen Victoria, right through to the 1950's. I also drink Asti wines with cheese or fruit, still only 5 or 6%. But if you are looking for no alcohol Riseling, try the Riesling from Leitz, Eins Zwei Zero, which works well at £6.99 in Waitrose.
Christopher Burr. Master of Wine. August 2023.