Low-Alcohol Wine

Have you ever wondered what “low-alcohol wine” is, or how winemakers can decrease the alcohol content of wine? Here is a quick overview of wine alcohol content guidelines, the factors that influence wine alcohol levels, and the dynamics driving demand for “low-alcohol wine.”

Q: What is “low-alcohol wine?”
There is no universal guideline that defines “low-alcohol wine” or dictates the minimum alcohol content of wine. For example, in the United States, the Federal Alcohol Administration Act defines wine as, among other things, containing not less than 7% and not more than 24% alcohol by volume (ABV). By contrast, the International Organisation of Vine and Wine (OIV), an intergovernmental organization whose members include countries such as Australia, Argentina and European Union member states, says that the alcohol content of wine “shall not be less than 8.5% vol;” but in some regions, a minimum of 7% is allowed when climate, soil, vine variety, and special qualitative factors or traditions are taken into account.

Most table wines have about 12.5%–14% ABV, although some, such as Zinfandel and Petite Sirah, can have higher ABV levels. So, any wine that has 11% ABV or less, has a lower alcohol level than is typical. By contrast, fortified wine, such as Port or Sherry, generally has between 17% and 21% ABV.

Q: Why do some wines have less alcohol than others?
Fermentation is the process whereby grape sugar is converted to alcohol. The less sugar a grape has, the less alcohol is produced. The amount of grape sugar is influenced by the climate where the grapes are grown (cooler climate equals less sugar) and how ripe the grapes are when they are harvested. Certain varieties of grapes also have a tendency to produce more sugar.

It is possible for a winemaker to lower the alcohol content of a wine through “natural means”—by picking the grapes earlier in the harvest (when they have less sugar), by using grape varieties that produce less sugar and by growing the grapes in cooler areas, thus slowing the development of sugar in the grapes. Winemakers can also use technical processes, such as spinning cones or reverse osmosis, to reduce the alcohol content of wine. These processes employ techniques such as partial vacuum evaporation, distillation and membrane techniques.

Q: What drives the demand for wines with lower alcohol levels?
Some prefer wines that are lower in alcohol because they want to reduce their alcohol and calorie intake as part of a healthier lifestyle (lower-alcohol wine generally has fewer calories). According to Mintel, the UK market for lower-alcohol wine (ABV of less than 8.5%) is not only driven by health concerns, but also because the wine is cheaper. Government excise duties are lower on wines with an ABV of 5.5% or less and, as a result, the average bottle costs £3.27 compared to £4.95. Mintel states that in the UK, value sales of lower-alcohol wine increased 40% between 2011 and 2012 to about £23 million.

Q: How big is the market for “low-alcohol” / “low-calorie” wines?
Globally, sales of wines specifically marketed as “low alcohol”/”low calorie” wine are a very small part of total wine sales. This is due, in part, to the fact that many consumers are skeptical about the taste and quality of wines which have had their alcohol content reduced using technical means.

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