June 1, 2021 – Are you looking for wines that are lower in alcohol? Basically, you have two choices: drink wines from regions that naturally produce wine in the sub-12% range or try an alcohol-reduced wine. Seriously, stay away from the no alcohol wines unless you want to trade one sugar for another. That’s why so many producers are jumping on the “Better for You” (BFY) bandwagon, offering wines, as well as wine-based seltzers and spritzers, that are lower in alcohol, carbs and calories. It’s the “light beerification” of wine. You knew it was coming.
Making low alcohol wines is not trivial. It requires stripping to reach the desired levels of alcohol and in the process something besides the alcohol is lost. It’s a slippery slope to find the balance between “better for you” and “still tastes good enough to want to drink.” Picking early to lower the natural sugar the yeast ferments to alcohol can work for some varieties, but you could get left shortchanged in the flavor department. Or, you have to stop fermentation before dryness is acheived, leaving residual sugar—which is what most East Coast and Midwest producers do: the grapes rarely get to California levels of ripeness. Residual sugars balance the insane acid in wines like Finger Lakes Rieslings and Pinot Gris.
We’ve had the misfortune of tasting some pretty rude examples of low- and no-alcohol wines. There are a couple that have promise, including one brand from our backyard. It’s from Scheid and in one of their many brilliant marketing forays, they created a cool line of zero sugar, low calorie, lower alcohol wines called “Sunny With a Chance of Flowers.”
Heidi Scheid, Executive Vice President, Scheid Family Wines, told us, “We did a lot of taste trials to arrive at 9%. A LOT. I wish we had kept track of how many! We felt that we needed to be below 11% to be considered ‘low alcohol,’ so we did trials between 7% and 11%.”
The company wanted to be consistent across the Sunny brand, with the same alcohol levels within the lineup. At 9% ABV, she says, the wines were “flavorful, aromatic and varietally correct and still retained the mouthfeel and texture that makes wine such a wonderful experience.”
Truth be told, the Sunny wines are quite acceptable as lower alcohol examples of real wine that actually tastes like wine, if a bit on the lighter side.
The current Sunny portfolio includes 2019 Positively Sauvignon Blanc, 2018 Positively Chardonnay and 2018 Positively Pinot Noir, all $16.99 per 750ml bottle. They offer a great choice for anyone looking for real wine flavor in a lower alcohol format. The Pinot Noir was a panel favorite, with the Sauv Blanc a close second. De-alcoholed Chardonnay is a really hard one to nail. Scheid says it plans to add more products to the Sunny lineup in the future.
Did Scheid start with wines that were already vinified and then were de-alcoholed to the desired level, or did they pick earlier to start with naturally lower alcohol levels?
Scheid says there’s no substitute for letting grapes hang to reach full flavor potential. After harvesting, the grapes are vinified to dryness in exactly the same way that all Scheid wines are, but a portion of the alcohol is removed using a two-stage filter.
How much flavor people are willing to give up to have a lower alcohol beverage?
“I think people want to have their cake and eat it too. At least I do!” says Scheid. “We went into making ‘Sunny with a Chance of Flowers’ with the premise that it has to taste great….it has to taste like WINE….otherwise what’s the point? I personally look forward to having a glass of wine every evening; it’s the perfect way to segue from work mode to relaxed mode. I wanted a wine that allowed me to have a glass or two in the evening and still wake up early the next day feeling great.”
Like most wine drinkers, she wasn’t willing to give up flavor, mouthfeel, and texture, that are part and parcel of the wine experience. “After all, that’s why we drink wine! I’m pretty sure that’s universal for wine drinkers, so if we’re offering an alternative to a 14% abv wine, it has to hit the right notes to be successful.”
We wondered, what’s really most important to consumers: less alcohol, lower calories or lower carbs?
Says Scheid, “The honest answer is, I’m not sure, but I think it’s a combination of all three. As a new category, the ‘Better for You’ segment is a bit confusing as there really isn’t a definition of what qualifies a wine to make the claim that it’s ‘better for you’. Does the wine need to be low alcohol, low calorie, low sugar? And how does one define low? Does it matter how it’s made? We believe the answer is ‘yes’ to all of the above and why Sunny with a Chance of Flowers is the category leader.”
Scheid insists that Sunny is the real deal, being zero sugar, just 85 calories per 5 ounce serving, 9% alcohol and certified sustainable—a box not many in the category can check. You could make the case that Sunny is the only low alcohol option that delivers on the “better for you” proposition both with what’s inside the bottle and how it’s made. Scheid says what really sets Sunny apart in the category is that it delivers on what a consumer would expect in a better for you wine. Plus, it’s family-owned, certified sustainable, powered by renewable energy and sourced from a premium AVA.
Give these a try. And remember, you can always blend in a little of a full strength wine, especially an oaky chard, to dial up the flavor. We know that’s cheating, but seriously, we also want to have our cake and eat it, too.
You can also consider varieties that are naturally lean and crisp, like Picpoul, Riesling, Verdejo, Vermentino, Albariño and good old Soave Classico (Pieropan has a good one at 12%). Locally, I. Brand has several that clock in quite low in the alcohol department, (La Marea Albariño and Grenache are always favorites), as does Chesebro Wines, especially the 2018 Albariño, 2019 Grenache rosé and 2019 Sauvignon Blanc, all from Arroyo Seco.
Don’t be afraid to ask about the alcohol levels on wines when you go to a wine bar. It pays to be informed and you’ll feel better in the morning, when that big bright sun stares you right in your California face.