The first month of a new year is a good time for re-examining prejudices, so I thought I should revisit low-alcohol wines, which I comprehensively dismissed a couple of months ago. Were they really as bad as I made out, and could they offer a passable substitute for the real thing during dry January?
Well, after checking out what is currently on offer, the answer is yes and no. You’ve got to have at least 0.5% alcohol to make a decent drink that isn’t a problem for drivers, pregnant women and those who aim to cut down, so these wines aren’t for those who – for religious or other reasons – avoid alcohol altogether.
The worst were quite shockingly bad; but there were a couple of ranges that, if not exactly thrilling, were much better than I expected. The best is Natureo, from far-sighted Spanish producer Torres, which has been making low-alcohol wines since 2008. I wasn’t that impressed by Torres’s early efforts, but two out of the three I tasted recently, including a red, weren’t bad at all.
Penfolds has also produced a series of 0.5% bevvies under the Rawson’s Retreat label, and they have the generous fruit character of the original, although with the inevitable shortness that comes with low-alcohol wine. (The wine is the same as the full-strength version, with the alcohol first removed via a spinning cone device, and the wine then de-acidified.) Tesco has a number of good-value own-label low-alcohol wines, too, including a creditable rosé.
There are other low-alcohol wines with a slightly higher abv targeted at slimmers rather than abstainers. I wasn’t that impressed by Aldi’s new Featherweight range – the saccharine 5% Featherweight Pinot Grigio, at 52 kcal a 125ml glass, is particularly unpleasant – but the Slender duo, which has just been taken on by the Co-op, are the best (relatively) low- alcohol wines I’ve tasted. Mind you, they are 8.5%, which is almost full strength.
The technology for making low-alcohol wines is improving – there’s a real incentive now, because there is obviously a market for it – but, Slender apart, they still don’t really do it for me.
As a footnote, low-alcohol beer is another matter entirely, not least because there are a lot more interesting options – but then, hops add more flavour and character than sugar does. I was really impressed by Big Drop Brewing’s 0.5% pale ale just before Christmas, which is available from the excellent drydrinker.com, £16.99for a case of six bottles. Big Drop brews to a low abv, rather than taking alcohol out, which might be the secret.
Torres Natureo Muscat £4.79 Waitrose, £5.99 Ocado; 0.5% abv
This off-dry aromatic white would easily do duty for a riesling or gewürztraminer. Perfect with stir-fries and other spicy food.
Tesco Low-Alcohol Garnacha Rosé £2.40; less than 0.5%
This may taste of strawberries rather than grapes, but it’s in a good way. Perfect if you feel like pretending it’s summer. There’s a sparkling version, too (on offer at £3), although I don’t like it as much.
Rawson’s Retreat Chardonnay Pinot Noir Muscat £3.60 Tesco, £4.49 Bargain Booze; 0.5% abv
Champagne it ain’t, but this off-dry, fruity sparkling wine from Australian giant Penfolds would definitely do duty for prosecco. And at half the price.
The Slender Red Shiraz £6.99 The Co-op; 8.5% abv
Not much lower in alcohol than a conventional wine, although low for a shiraz, this has most of the flavour and weight of the full-strength version. Surprisingly good, as is the Slender white.