The Lowdown on Low-Alcohol Wine, According to a Sommelier

Whether you're sober curious or just searching for something that won't give you a severe hungover, here's what you should know about this wellness-centric wine trend.

Let's be honest: 2020 was a heavy drinking year for many of us. (How could it not have been?) The nightly quarantine cocktail hours followed by a wonderfully boozy holiday season kept our spirits high—and sent our livers into overdrive.

But with the season of indulgence—and arguably the worst year ever—officially behind us, many have been looking for more ways to cut back on their alcohol intake. While some Americans are going alcohol-free or even California sober, others are simply moving towards to more mindful drinking habits. This might include searching for easy ways to drink less (and enjoy it more), stocking up on healthier wines, or seeking low-sugar cocktails they can make at home.

When it comes to wine, moderation is crucial. But rather than cutting it out altogether, a lower-alcohol wine can make a big difference.

What Is Low Alcohol Wine?

Exactly what it sounds like—wines with low alcohol by volume (ABV). "While there is no official cut off, these wines typically run from 6 to 11 percent ABV," explains Christopher Hoel, founder of Harper's Club and Luckysomm, and expert wine curator for Wine Insiders and Martha Stewart Wine Co. "Compare that to a pinot noir or California chardonnay, which usually fall between 12.5 to 14.5 percent."

While a few percentage points don't feel like a lot, the slight drop in alcohol content can be the difference between that extra glass and a morning headache. And while you're likely seeing a sudden influx of new wine brands offering lower-ABV versions of cabernet, chardonnay, and the like, rest assured that you don't need to abandon "real" bottles to find low-ABV options. According to Hoel, you just need to know what varietals and labels to look out for. Here's how to get started sipping low-ABV wines that won't compromise on flavor.

How Low Alcohol Wines Are Made

Let's talk about science for a second. "Wine alcohol is directly related to the amount of sugar available during fermentation," Hoel says. The higher the sugar levels, the higher the potential alcohol level. "Now, alcohol content can be manipulated during the winemaking process—either naturally or manually stopping before all the sugar is consumed—but the sugar levels in the grape at the time of harvest are usually the best indicator of a wine's potential strength."

There are three key determining factors of sugar content in a grape: Climate, altitude, and varietal. According to Hoel, grapes grown in moderate to cooler climates, or at higher altitudes, don't ripen as quickly as their warm climate cousins. This results in lower sugar levels. "Additionally, certain grape varieties can ripen without escalating sugar levels, meaning they can get super ripe without that contributing to the final alcohol content."

How to Look for Quality Low-ABV Wines

"Of course, you can identify low-alcohol wines by checking the ABV of the bottle, but searching through a sea of wine to find a bottle in your target range will be time-consuming," Hoel says.

Instead, refine your search by starting with varietals that are known for their low-alcohol levels, such as one of these.

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One of the most recognizable low-alcohol wine varietals, riesling typically ranges from 9 to 11 percent ABV. "Although it can get a bad rap for being overly sweet, a good riesling will boast an acidity that balances out any residual sweetness in the wine. With a wide variety of flavor profiles, this food-friendly wine one of the best examples of delicious low-alcohol wines," says Hoel.

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Vinho Verde

Another great option that's recently gained popularity for its crisp drinkability are the wines from vinho verde DOP. "Translated from Portuguese as 'green wine,' or 'young wine,' these wines are traditionally produced from grapes that don't get super ripe, making their sugar concentrations naturally lower. And since sugar is what converts into alcohol, the final alcohol content will be on the lower side. The 2019 Mar Azul Vinho Verde is one of my personal favorites," Hoel says. "Coming in at 9 percent ABV, its gentle effervescence and crisp acidity make it a classic vinho verde and extremely easy to drink."

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French Gamay

Gamay is known for its light-body, elevated acidity, and low tannin structure. "A cool climate wine, the grapes tend to have less sugar than most red varietals, typically resulting in a final ABV of between 10.5 to 12.5 percent. New-world winemaking practices tend to exceed this level, so be sure to look for a bottle produced in its home region: Beaujolais, France," adds Hoel.

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Known for a signature sweetness, moscatos are (believe it or not) an excellent choice for a low-guilt night-cap. According to Hoel, to create this renowned sweetness, winemakers manipulate the fermentation process to stop the conversion of sugar to alcohol, which allows for its delicate sweetness and a low ABV. "My go-to is the Abbazia Moscato Vino Dolce, a fun and spritzy white wine from Northern Italy's Lombardia province. Clocking in at just 6 percent ABV, this sweet and beautifully floral wine is an ideal choice for an after-dinner drink, or two. For a sparkling option, try Lone Vine Sparkling Moscato: A delicious new-world twist on off-dry moscato," he recommends.

A Final Word

These examples will get you started, but don't limit yourself. Low-alcohol doesn't have to mean less complexity, less variety, or less deliciousness—there are limitless options out there waiting to be discovered. Hoel recommends asking for help at your local wine shop or searching your favorite online wine providers for new bottles to try and take note of the wines you like. "As you continue to explore, you'll find that there is a bottle for every occasion," he says.

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