Somm Advice: How Low Can You Go?

"I’ve been reading lately about the new trend of lower alcohol wines. What can you tell me about these wines?" Jessica in Salem

You are right; there has been a lot of chatter in the wine world about lower alcohol wines. In Oregon, where Pinot Noir is king, lower alcohol can be both desirable and marketable.

There is no definitive guideline for “low-alcohol wine,” but the FDA defines it as containing no less than 7 percent and no more than 24 percent alcohol by volume (ABV). While most table wines contain 12.5 to 14 percent ABV, wines deemed “lower alcohol” typically contain between 11 and 13 percent. 

A little background on how alcohol occurs in wine: Alcohol is created by the conversion of sugar during fermentation. The more sugar in the fruit, the higher the potential alcohol in the wine. Grapes with lower sugar levels — therefore lower alcohol — can result from cooler growing regions, cooler growing year and/or higher vineyard altitudes. Varieties also differ in natural sugar levels. 

Winemakers also play a role during production. Certain producers prefer making lower alcohol wines; others make these wines simply as a reflection of the cooler vintage. The former are guided by the belief that these wines taste better because the fruit and soil characteristics aren’t overshadowed by alcohol. 

From the perspective of a sommelier, lower alcohol wines are generally easier to pair with food, though higher alcohol wines also have a place on the dinner table. Lower alcohol wines also tend to age somewhat more gracefully, so if you are planning on laying a bottle down, the alcohol content should be considered when determining how long you allow it to age before drinking it.

Does your palate prefer lower alcohol-driven wines? Do you like heavier, powerful and rich wines? If so, go higher. Conversely, if you appreciate something with more finesse, a lighter body and more brightness, go lower. Depending on your preference, look for vintages, producers or regions known for making wines in those styles.

Here are some of my suggestions for wines exemplifying their varietals at lower alcohol levels: Riesling, Grüner Veltliner, Semillon, Prosecco, Gamay Noir, Pinot Noir.

And here are just a few Oregon producers making wines in a lower alcohol style: Patton Valley, Brooks, Carabella, Atticus, Amity, Firestead, Montinore Estate, Brandborg, Cooper Mountain

Cheers! Jennifer Cossey

I look forward to receiving more of your questions.  Email me at to submit your questions and I’ll see you next month!

Very Low (under 12.5 percent)
Sparkling: Italian Asti and Italian Prosecco
White: French Vouvray and Muscadet, German Riesling, Portuguese Vinho Verde, Spanish Txacolina.
Rosé: California White Zinfandel, Portuguese rosés. 

Moderately Low (12.5 to 13.5 percent)
Sparkling: California sparkling wine, French Champagne, Spanish Cava.
White: Austrian Grüner Veltliner, Australian Riesling, French Alsace white, French Loire and Bordeaux whites, French white Burgundy, Italian Pinot Grigio, New York Riesling, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, Oregon Pinot Gris, South African Sauvignon Blanc, Spanish Albarino.
Rosé: French rosés, Spanish rosés.
Red: French Beaujolais and Burgundy, Oregon Pinot Noir, French Bordeaux, Italian Chianti, Spanish Rioja.

High (13.5 to 14.5 percent)
White: Australian Chardonnay, California Chardonnay, California Pinot Gris, California Sauvignon Blanc, California Viognier, Chilean Chardonnay, French Sauternes, South African Chenin Blanc.
Red: Argentine Malbec, Australian Shiraz, California Cabernet Sauvignon, California Pinot Noir, California Syrah, Chilean Merlot, French Rhône red, Italian Barolo.

Very High (more than 14.5 percent)
White: French Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise (fortified), Portuguese Madeira (fortified), Spanish sherry (fortified). 
Red: California Petite Sirah, California Zinfandel, Italian Amarone, Port (fortified). 

Teaser: What does low alcohol mean?

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