The lighter side of wine

Jamie Goode investigates the possibilities for reduced alcohol wine

WHAT IS WINE? There are two answers to this rather philosophical question. The first is the legal definition: wine is a fermented alcoholic drink made from fresh grapes with just a few permitted additions, and so on. The second is a more functional definition: it is a drink that comes in a bottle, is white, pink or red, is drunk out of a wine glass, and is used in particular social situations.

Most people use the latter definition, albeit unconsciously, and this is one of the reasons normal people have been less bothered by the emergence of the lighter wine category than the wine trade has. 

The category of lighter wines lacks a formal definition, but is a new segment of the market consisting of wines of lower alcoholic strength. Arbitrarily, for the purposes of this piece, the cut-off for a lighter-style wine is 10% alcohol. This reduced alcohol level is arrived at in a number of ways, and because of this, some of these wines will fit within the current legal definition of wine, but some will not. 

Many in the wine trade find this blurring of boundaries worrying. Could this softening of the definition of wine lead to the emergence of flavoured wine-based beverages eroding the demand for the real thing? Others welcome this new category, seeing it as a bridge that brings new drinkers into the often somewhat intimidating world of wine.

In the EU, the lowest permitted alcohol level for wine is 9%. Wines below this alcoholic level are made in the EU, with a special dispensation, such as some Mosel Rieslings. But no wine is allowed to be imported into the EU below this level, with the exception of a reciprocal arrangement with California, where the lowest permitted level is 7%. Also, the maximum permitted reduction in alcoholic strength, through technologies such as reverse osmosis, is 2%. So wines that fall outside these parameters, which includes many lighter wines, are labelled as a ‘wine-based beverage’, or some variation on this theme. 

What has been the driver behind this category? First, there has been a lifestyle push. The alcohol levels in conventional wines have risen in recent years, to the point where it is common to find wines at 13.5%, 14% and 14.5% alcohol. Not only does alcohol have its obvious intoxicating effect, higher alcohol also equates to higher calories, because alcohol itself is pretty calorific. Lighter-style or no-alcohol wines seem to fit better into modern life, and particularly lunchtime drinking. They also offer a drinking option during pregnancy, or when sobriety is required for work reasons, or because people want to drive home.  

Second, there has been the financial incentive of being able to hit a lower tax point. In the UK, the break point is 5.5%, and wines at or below this level are subject to much-reduced taxation levels. The tax burden in the UK has risen steadily, and supermarkets see lighter style wines as a way of hitting the important £4 and £5 price points. For this reason, much of the rise in sales of lighter style wines has been with 5.5% alcohol products.