A new approach to an old problem

Both Ancient Greeks and pot smokers have realised the value of lower-alcohol wines, reports Rebecca Gibb MW.

lower-alcohol wines
lower-alcohol wines

While two in three Americans are considered overweight, it’s boom times for Fitbit and CrossFit, kale and quinoa. Even McDonald’s sells salads. Food and drink companies face unprecedented pressure to divulge what’s really in their products, and the calorific content of alcohol – including wine – has inevitably come under the spotlight. The timing of this scrutiny over alcohol and calories couldn’t have come at a worse time for the industry – research papers have shown that rising alcohol levels in wine over the past 30 years aren’t a figment of the imagination. No wonder there’s been a rise in interest for lower-alcohol and reduced-calorie wines in the past decade. 

Although Weight Watchers has been making wines for dieters for 15 years, there has been a slew of releases in the past five years. The Real Housewives of New York star Bethenny Frankel launched the high-profile Skinnygirl range in 2012, and the appetite for guilt-free drinking appears to have not yet been sated. Thomson & Scott Skinny Prosecco sold out in its first week on sale in the London department store Selfridges in April 2016. Shoppers lapped up its assertion that it contained half the sugar of an average Prosecco (at 7g/L), and it went on to become the bestselling wine on the store’s website. The start-up company did not expect such an overwhelming response. Ian Thomson, creative director of Thomson & Scott, explained, “I remember looking at the 4,000 bottles we brought into the UK sitting in the warehouse and thinking, ‘that’s a lot of booze’. We sold out by June and we had to create a waiting list. We didn’t realise anyone would be so interested.”

However, the rest of the market has not grown as quickly as early adopters hoped, as many lower-alcohol and lower-calorie wines have failed the taste test, creating a negative perception of the category. Yet, a Wine Intelligence report on low-alcohol wines conducted in 2016 showed 47% of those surveyed in Germany had purchased lower-alcohol wine (due in part to the country’s production of wines naturally lower in alcohol) while Canada and the US were the fastest-growing markets for lower-alcohol products.

An old trend

This ‘new’ trend for lower-alcohol wines has been here before, however. In the early 1970s, low-alcohol flavoured wines were the new Thunderbird. “The low-alcohol wines – given funky names to attract the hippie and dropout crowd of the late ’60s and ’70s – were known as ‘pop’ or ‘mod’ wines,” explains Thomas Pinney in A History of Wine in America. They enjoyed rapid success, “streaking from 3 million gallons in 1969 to 7.5 million the next year but as quickly faded.” Pinney also references an edition of Time, which suggested such wines “added a pleasant extra dimension to the effects of pot”.

The appeal of low-alcohol wines soon shifted from Woodstock to Weight Watchers. An article in New York magazine in 1981 claimed, “the new light wines are aimed at the same calorie-conscious consumers who buy light beer and diet soft drinks…” The trend, the article explained, stemmed from the first ‘soft’ wines in the US made by German-born winemaker Ed Friedrich in 1975. Friedrich and others lobbied the California government to change an archaic law that wines had to have a minimum of 10% alcohol. The law – a hangover from Prohibition days – was amended in 1980, paving the way for ‘innovative’ new products like Masson Light and Los Hermanos Light Chablis in the early 1980s.

While the calorific content of wine is now viewed as an undesirable part of drinking wine, it has long been part of its appeal. It provided essential nutrition, and was often included in military rations from Roman armies to World War I troops. However, excessive drinking has been a problem as long as alcohol has existed, and reducing the alcohol level in wine was a common practice in Ancient Greece. Drinking wine neat was considered barbaric – perhaps because the strength of wines made from dried grapes was so high – and diluting wines, often with seawater, helped to prevent intoxication, as well as make the water more palatable.

Today, it is the lower-calorie and lower-alcohol wines that need to be more palatable to give them a chance at long-term success. The ‘new’ category has emerged in response to an unprecedented rise in wellness combined with a growing awareness of health and wellbeing. However, the creation of wines aiming to fulfil a smaller but similarly minded set of clients in the 1970s and 1980s shows this is not a novel idea. And, to drink moderately by reducing the alcohol content in wine is as old as Euripides’ plays.

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