A glass of wine at the end of the working day might seem like the perfect way to relax, but recently the spiralling strength of the average bottle has meant that just one glass can have some unwanted effects. Drinkers accustomed to enjoying white wine that hovers around 10-13 per cent have complained that recent trends for white wines of 15 per cent and even higher were having head-swimming consequences after just one glass. While high strength white wines are arguably equally strong in taste and flavour, many consumers have started to demand a tasty tipple that won’t have them toppling over. Today, supermarkets and other wine retailers are responding with wines that have a lower alcohol content without compromising on taste.
Supermarket giants Tesco and Sainsbury’s, along with Marks and Spencer, have been among those leading the charge in the recent trend for lower-alcohol wines. Concerns about health and an increased awareness of alcohol units are further contributing factors to the current trend for less heady wines, with consumers increasingly looking for products that won’t have them exceeding their recommended weekly intake in just a couple of glasses.
With the average bottle of white wine standing at about 12 to 13 per cent alcohol, the term ‘lower alcohol’ can justly be applied to any wine that doesn’t exceed 11 per cent. Sainsbury’s has recently added a special ’10 per cent’ range of wines to its shelves, while other supermarkets are reporting increased sales in lower alcohol white wines such as Portuguese Vinho Verde, which typically stands at between nine and 10 per cent. In 2009 Tesco, the UK’s leading supermarket, introduced its first reduced alcohol white wine – a Chardonnay from the Australian McGuigan winery. Another white wine, together with a red Syrah and a Rose, all from the Plume label, are set to be added to the range. All these wines stand at around 9.5 per cent, an alcohol strength that the manufacturers and retailers claim delivers a marked reduction in alcohol without losing any of the flavour.
Of course, while a little lower in alcohol than many bottles, this type of alcohol percentage is still sufficient to have an intoxicating effect if drunk in anything other than reasonably small amounts. Increasingly, health-conscious consumers are calling for pleasant tasting white wines that are not just lower in alcohol, but genuinely low. Sales of wines that hover around the 5.5 per cent mark have been climbing steadily over the past year, as consumers respond to Government advice about drinking in moderation.
The change in consumer habits is bucking a trend for wines that have been consistently gaining strength in recent years. Rising temperatures, together with a perceived public preference for bold and flavoursome wines, has lead to a wine market where white wines of around 14 per cent are far from unusual. New World wines particularly have been gaining in alcohol strength – while the average strength of a bottle of Australian white wine was around 12.4 per cent in 1984, this climbed to 14 per cent 10 years later. A trend repeated in California and, indeed, across much of the New World. Some Old World wines have also been increasing in alcoholic content – for example, many wineries in the famous Prosecco wine growing region have been harvesting a month earlier than in previous years, to avoid the increased alcoholic strength that has been a result of hotter summers – often pushing the white wines above 15 per cent and into the higher Fortified Wines tax category. To avoid tax problems, many wine producers have reported having to perform ‘reverse osmosis’ – actively reducing the alcohol content to bring wines back to 14.5 per cent or below.
The situation is changing and there is increasing choice for consumers looking for wine that doesn’t pack such an alcoholic punch. Supermarkets are now calling on the UK Government to deliver tax incentives on lower alcohol wines, while consumers are calling for lower-strength wines to be clearly labelled and marketed as such, to make them easier to find on the supermarket shelves. The growing public appetite for lower-alcohol wines certainly looks set to continue, as health concerns, together with drink driving issues, increasingly make their mark on the public consciousness. While there will no doubt still be a market for strong, bold and high alcohol white wine, the world of viticulture may have to adapt its practises if it is to meet consumer demand.