So it’s that time of year again – we get it, we’ve all over-indulged a little over the festive period and now it’s time for a bit of balance, and so begins the month of abstinence (wish it was the month of absinthe instead). In the good old days before ‘you know what’, the hospitality industry was buzzing throughout the whole of December, followed by a natural calming down of consumption in January (unless you’re Scottish…or Australian, for that matter). Now it seems that the exclamations of ‘I can’t, I’m doing dry Jan’ drown out what should be the sound of restaurant telephones ringing with bookings.
To accommodate those on this alcohol Lent, many hospitality businesses have turned to ‘Low & No’, versions of your favourite tipples, with the booze taken out or reduced. I am, alas, no stranger to this concept – back in 2011 when I was a Wine Buyer, the government came up with the catchy ‘Responsibility Deal Pledge A8(a)’ – look it up, its enthralling! Essentially the government pledged to remove 1 billion units of alcohol by 2015 by tasking beverage suppliers to lower the alcoholic content of products they produced. This was, of course, an open goal; large spirits producers started mixing their mainline brands with flavourings (Rhubarb Gin anyone?) to reduce their abv, and huge brewers cut the strength of beers (John Smith’s, Strongbow, Stella Artois, Budweiser, Beck’s, Carlsberg Export and Cobra all dropped abv). Not only did this mean that these producers had a significantly lower duty tax bill, but the government smashed its targets to rapturous applause from all. Well, not all, to make up for the shortfall in alcohol duties on spirits and beers, a sustained attack on wine duties ensued; since 2010 duty on wine has increased by nearly 60% and Port by 90%!
‘Well why don’t you just reduce the alcohol levels of Wine?’ I hear you ask.
Trust me, we did. As a wine business, we engaged with Plumpton College (the UK’s only University dedicated to wine production) to see if we could add a combination of natural products associated with the flavours of wine (think lemons, elderflower and blackberries) and water during the fermentation process to produce a product that looked, felt and tasted like wine but with less booze. Sadly, many experiments later, there were no satisfactory results. Some had a little success with ‘wine based drinks’ (Echo Falls Summer Berries and First Cape’s Café Collection), but even these are now dwindling.
The problem is that to produce low alcohol wine, you have to create the alcohol first, then take it out – an extra process that does nothing to quality (incidentally, I recently saw an advert for possibly the most pointless product ever, a ‘Non Alcoholic Seltzer’. Given that a seltzer is flavoured sparkling water, I’m still struggling to fathom the relevance of ‘non-alcoholic’ here!).
The beauty of wine is in the complexity and unique flavours that a combination of growing conditions, production techniques and ageing afford it. Every wine maker attempts to make the best wine they can with everything that is at their disposal, alcohol is merely a by-product of that. Do we really want to remove the originality of these beauties by stripping them of alcohol and diluting their qualities? There have been attempts by many to manipulate alcohol levels by picking grapes earlier when they have less sugar and hence less potential alcohol, but these will be lacking in phenolics leading to wines with high, astringent and unpleasant acidity, as well as a lack of fruitiness. So when it comes to manipulating lower alcohol levels in wine, I say NOOOOOO!
BUT … umpteen outstanding wines out there have the ability to delight as well as being naturally low in alcohol – hurrraahhh! The soft, scented voluptuousness of Moscato d’Asti and Brachetto d’Acqui always delight at 5.5%, Vinho Verde is in the middle of a renaissance and the fresh floral beauties rarely top 11%, whilst the most ripe and buxom of Muscadets rarely tip over 12%. Even Prosecco or Zinfandel Rosé hover around 11% mark, so if you’re a red drinker, switching to these will temper that consumption. For the most exciting, sublime and gorgeously ghostly of the lower alcohol wines, nothing quite gets nearer than the Mosel in Germany for me. Usually weighing in at featherweight 7 to 10% abv, they manage to combine floral scents and slate-like freshness in a svelte like package.
And finally, a little plea. Please don’t forget us humble little independent hospitality businesses in the post-Christmas funk. Even if you’re committed to restraint in January why not book a table for February or buy a bottle from your local wine merchant to drink later in the year? Or maybe grab a gift voucher or book that wine tasting you’ve been talking about for months. Every little helps!