Legs 11

The new duty rules have pushed producers to make wines at 11% abv for the UK market. But can tasty, concentrated wines be made at cut strength? Joe Wadsack looks for naturally lowabv wines – with legs

Over the years, centuries and millennia, wine has followed a steady upward trajectory of quality, with the odd hiccup here and there. We have discovered the optimum conditions in which to carefully husband perfectly ripe grapes, with more flavour and such a fine-tuned clarity and transparency that we can often place the origin of the liquid in the glass to an area of land no bigger than a few hundred square metres. Then Rishi Sunak comes along.

I say, with a small degree of embarrassment, that our current prime minister studied at Winchester College, where I received much the same education some 10 years prior. Much the same, apart from perhaps our formative extra-curricular activities – it was around this time I took enthusiastically to wine, whereas presumably Rishi didn’t. All that is to say that when a teetotaller is in charge of the economy, things can quickly go south. Sunak decided to restructure the way we pay tax and excise on alcohol, which has had a profound effect on wine.

On the face of it, the idea that alcohol should be taxed proportionately seems a perfectly sane suggestion, until one factors in how wine is made. Sunak decided that all wine above 11% alcohol would carry a penalty tariff in line with the extra alcohol it contains. This hike in customs duty has sent every large wine producer scurrying back to the winery to blend wines to take advantage of the tax break that making wine at 11% affords.

If you want to know what a world of 11% wines tastes like, you’d have to go back to pub house wines in the eighties. Then we were treated to Valpolicella and Muscadet that was cynically made in vineyards producing 20 tonnes an acre, rather than the more common six or seven these days. Wines were, at their very best, tart and insipid.

Starting with Aussie wines in the late eighties, we have had 40 years to learn that less is more, that even inexpensive wine made well, with grapes that are allowed to ripen properly, can give real pleasure at low prices. Very few grapes give off their best until they reach about 12.5% potential alcohol, so Sunak’s tax overhaul, for the first time in a generation, incentivised producers to make worse wine in order to meet price points.

Early evidence indicates that this has been a financial failure, with less tax being spent on wine and ultimately less revenue for the government. In the meantime, what to do? Well, we can take advantage of certain grape varieties that are still capable of making wines at slightly lower booze levels. Riesling has the advantage of being able to produce beautiful wines at remarkably low levels of alcohol. Two reasons – Riesling doesn’t produce pyrazenes, those bitter, grassy, unripe flavours, often associated with picking early. Second, they are high in acid, which suits leaving a bit of sugar in the wine, reducing the alcohol and leaving a citrusy, moreishly sweet and sour palate. Like a wine Daiquiri!

Naturally low-abv wines 

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You can, of course, embrace some of those green peppery gooseberry flavours, and in some places, such as Marlborough in New Zealand, microclimates with hugely strong sun radiation, allow the flavours of their grapes to ripen prematurely. There is an outstanding producer called Forrest that owns a block called the Doctors’. Widely available, this wine is a fully ripe Kiwi Sauvignon with a mere 9.5% alcohol by volume. Taking advantage of the Sunak alcohol scale, it’s remarkably cheap too.

You might also like to drink low-alcohol fizz. The grape variety Muscat is famous for being delicious both to eat and to make wine from, at any alcohol level. It’s completely delicious and puts a smile on your face. 

Asti is far more serious than people like to think and is meticulously made. I consider it one of the most underrated premium wines out there. It’s finer brother, Moscato d’Asti, made by top producers such as Vajra or Cerutti tastes like pear and lemon sorbet, is eminently mixable in a cocktail environment and weighs in at a mere 4%. I mean, why wouldn’t you?

You might too be reaching for that old package holiday stalwart, Vinho Verde, but while huge gains in quality have been achieved, it has meant that most good examples are as alcoholic as any other dry white. 

However, there is one other low(er) alcohol wine known internationally and venerated by wine experts and sommeliers alike, but which sadly appears to be going the way of the saber-toothed tiger.

So here is my appeal to save the rarest of wine species, the Hunter Semillon. A variety grown for centuries in Bordeaux where it is famous for world-class sweet wines, Semillon was brought to Australia as early as the late 18th century. It is no coincidence that early examples of dry Hunter Semillon were usually labelled quite illegally as ‘Hunter Riesling’, because when grown in the unusual tropical zone of the lower Hunter and picked really early, say 9-11 % alcohol, it produces bone-dry, limey wines when young, and turns into a gloriously honeyed marmalade-filled joy, not unlike aged Grand Cru Chablis, when allowed to age for 10, 20 or even 30 years. Look out for examples from Tyrell’s, McWilliams, McGuigan or Brokenwood with at least five years on them.

So, if you are to go low, do so in the know.