Wine Appreciation: Low alcohol needn't mean low enjoyment
Please don't look away immediately when you discover this piece is about lower-alcohol wines. Granted, for a country like ours, whose primary requirement of intoxicating liquor is that it erases inhibitions as quickly as possible, it seems nonsensical to explore wines that won't get you aggressive or oblivious in a couple of swigs.
But while de-alcoholised wines are so odiously bad I won't deign to publicise them, normal wines whose alcohol levels are on the low side are often excellent. While they won't knock you flat, they often have a bit more finesse than their boozier counterparts. Oaky, boozy, high-alcohol reds may be hugely popular, but I find they can often taste a little jammy and overcooked, with a hint of throat burn that overpowers their flavours in the heaviest cases.
There's plenty of this type of wine around, of course. With global warming, the spread of viticulture in the New World and the widespread taste for wines that sizzle, average alcohol levels have been rising steadily. Given extra sun, modern grapes just have that much more sugar in them to convert to alcohol.
While it's rare to find a Californian wine, for example, that declares itself over 15 per cent alcohol by volume (already a massive amount), there are many reds from the state that taste as if they contain far more than that (not being a wine inspector, I would never swear that they actually do). While all that sun can give wine fire and guts, I can't help preferring the steely coolness of northern bottles, where a longer time ripening on the vine gives the grapes more aroma.
So what to go for if you want to try something lighter? Bottom of the alcoholic heap is the Italian sweet wine Moscato D'Asti. At around 5.5 per cent, it's so light in alcohol you could probably get more intoxicated by smelling a tramp's breath than drinking a glass. Yet while its flavour straddles the boundary between wine and fruit juice elegantly, it's not something a diehard wine drinker will be fobbed off with for long.
For a light wine that still tastes reassuringly close to the heavy stuff, you need to go up a few percentage points and try a good Mosel Riesling. With a far northern position, the Mosel Valley's vineyards are as steep as a ski jump and often as chilly. While grapes in some cooler sites don't produce enough sugar to make heavily boozy wine, their slow-ripening, limestone-sucking roots still ensure they have plenty of flavour.
A good example of these is Dr Loosen Ürziger Würzgarten Riesling Kabinett 2008 - yes, German wine labels are still as hopelessly long-winded as ever - available at Waitrose for £11.68. With very sharp acidity and a peppery, faintly honeyed nose, the wine is a brilliantly refreshing mix of lime and green apple enlivened with a hint of sweet spice. At 7.5 per cent, it'll leave you with your wits largely intact, but has a sharp aromatic elegance to it that can make heftier vintages seem just a little crass.
Feargus O'Sullivan is a freelance journalist