Wine is a dinnertime staple for many households across the world, but like many of the finer things in life, it also comes with a few drawbacks. For starters, wine is particularly high in calories and alcohol content (at least when compared to mass market options like light beers and spiked seltzers).
But lighter wines, including those with lower sugar, lower calories, and lower ABV (or even no alcohol at all), exist so you don’t have to compromise taste or quality with each sip. In fact, winemakers have found clever ways to preserve the wine’s expression and character — a win-win for real grape gurus who understand and appreciate the multidimensionality of a swig’s flavor complexity on the palate.
To answer all of your burning questions on what has claimed a stake in an almost $600 billion industry, we tapped into the brains of a few wine experts and professionals for their take on the growing light and low-cal wine trend.
It’s first important to distinguish the difference between light wines and low-cal wines. The former, in technical terms, refers to any “light-bodied” wine with alcohol under 12.5 percent.
Due to the demand for “lighter” options, it’s now common to hear the expression “light wine” when also referring to a bottle with less calories, carbs, sugars, and/or alcohol. Just keep in mind that this dual-meaning did not used to be the case, much to many sommeliers’ annoyance. As a result, you may hear them refer to these varieties as “healthier” or “diet-friendly” wines instead, which may not be entirely accurate from a nutritionist’s point of view.
It’s also necessary to note that lighter wines may not technically be wines at all.
“Low- and no-alcohol wine is something of a paradox since, legally, it doesn’t exist when ‘wine’ should contain a minimum of 8% alcohol by volume unless specifically exempted,” says Rachel Thralls, certified sommelier and wine educator for Sonoma County Winegrowers.
“A lot of people who love wine don’t want to drink a high-alcohol bottle every night — they want options that go with food and with their lifestyle without making them feel the effects of too much alcohol,” says Virginie Boone, Sonoma-based wine writer, reviewer, and author of The Good Stuff column.
“We’ve seen for the last five years or so that consumers have become increasingly health-conscious in what they eat,” he says. “These long-term diet trends in food have been extending into alcoholic beverages, with wine drinkers looking for wines that are lower in calories, carbs, and sugar.”
As a result, varieties not only tout the aforementioned lower calories, carbs, and sugar, but also low to zero ABV so that consumers — especially millennials — can partake in social gatherings without having to sacrifice healthier lifestyle choices.
The single most important element of “healthier” winemaking (at least from a winemaker’s perspective) is to cut back on calories and/or alcohol while preserving the integrity of the grape. You can, of course, mechanically strip wine of its sugars, but it will likely result in a sour, almost medicinal flavor that lacks any semblance to actual wine.
Across the board, it appears that the most effective way to yield a lower sugar wine is to pick grapes prematurely.
“One of the most natural ways of reducing sugar and alcohol in wine is harvesting the grapes at a lower Brix level. Brix measures must levels (sugar) in wine grapes that ultimately determines how much alcohol a wine will have,” reveals Karissa Kruse, president of the Sonoma County Winegrowers Association. “The lower the Brix, while maintaining flavors and acidity, will lead to a lower calorie and lower sugar wine.”
“We select cooler vineyard sites that have great flavor development at naturally lower sugar levels,” adds Will Wiles, senior director of winemaking for Washington-based Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. “This combination results in lower alcohol and lower calorie wines without intervention. Many popular ‘better for you’ wines achieve their lower alcohol levels by removing the alcohol through filtration methods that can have negative impacts on the character, complexity, and flavor. It sounds simple to start in the vineyard, but we really believe that it results in the best-tasting wine.”
Though wines aren’t legally required to slap on a nutritional label with an ingredient list, be on the lookout for imposters disguised by clever marketing.
“Just like Cheez Whiz is not real cheese, some of the brands in this category are not real wine at all,” says Beck. “They are processed beverages made by adding water and alcohol to a bunch of flavorings and additives.”
Seek out brands that include nutrition and ingredient information on the bottle, advises Wiles. “Many brands are proactively transparent because consumers are increasingly expecting it. It just makes sense that when you have access to the knowledge of what you’re consuming, you can have confidence in the choices you’re making.”
And while it may seem like a no-brainer, the first attribute you’re going to want to look for is a product made from fermented grapes. Shockingly, this isn’t always the case with many mainstream brands that are chock-full of artificial flavors and alcohol that doesn’t even come from the fruit.
Now that you have the lowdown on all things low-cal, here are light wine recommendations from the experts:
“In addition to Liquid Light wines (which feature early harvest grapes and a nutritional label right on the can), I really enjoy Chateau Ste. Michelle’s Dry Riesling from Washington state. It’s a dry, refreshing style of Riesling with beautiful fruit flavors and crisp acidity. It also happens to be a lower alcohol and lower calorie wine. Also from Chateau Ste. Michelle, Elements Peach Ginger White Blend contains no added sugar and is less than 100 calories a glass. It’s a decadent white wine with flavors of fresh, ripe peaches and just the right amount of ginger spice. Both are great options from Washington state that fit into the ‘better for you’ category.”
“The most exciting low-alcohol wine I’ve had recently is from a producer called Libby, which is focusing on sustainably farmed, California-grown bubbled wine, with fewer calories and less alcohol. They bottle it with a crown cap and make white, pink and red versions that are pretty good. Other Sonoma County producers to look for include Cruse Wine Co., Kivelstadt Cellars, and Scribe Winery, but there are many working to offer lighter style wines.”