Q: As a woman in my early 60s, my body is not metabolising alcohol as efficiently as it once did, so I've turned to drinking low-alcohol wine. Why do restaurant owners look down their noses at a request for low-alcohol wine? Why do they all taste the same – especially whites, which are often sour? And are there more preservatives and other artificial chemicals in low-alcohol wine? J.L., BULLI, NSW
A: Some years ago, when alcohol-reduced wines were a novelty, one winery marketer sent a sample of its new "half-the-alcohol wine" to we critics, with a letter taped to the box. The letter said that this was their answer to demand for alcohol-reduced chardonnay. Inside was a 375ml bottle of their regular chardonnay.
The point was that unless you're prepared to put up with inferior-tasting wine, just drink less. It's almost impossible to produce a low-alcohol wine that tastes like a regular wine, partly because alcohol is an important part of the way wine tastes and feels in the mouth. Some low-alcohol winemakers attempt to make up for the lack of mouth-feel with high levels of residual sugar. I've never tasted one that worked.
So, if restaurant staff seem to look askance at your request for low-alcohol wine, it's probably because they know there are no good ones. It's probably a point of frustration for them, too.
Some wines routinely have less alcohol than most: traditional dry Hunter Valley semillons have between 10 and 11.5 per cent, compared with between 12 and 14 per cent for most whites. German rieslings, especially off-dry styles such as Kabinett and Spätlese from the Mosel Valley, have between 8 per cent and 9 per cent alcohol. Modern chardonnays are lower than they used to be: 12.5 to 13 per cent alcohol, down from about 14 per cent. Low-alcohol reds are scarcer.
Some modern styles, such as so-called natural wines, have less alcohol, but they seldom go below 12.5 per cent. This is because harvesting red grapes earlier usually results in wine that tastes unpleasantly "green" or unripe. The solution, perhaps, if you don't mind your wine tasting a little diluted, is to add some water. At least the flavours will be the same.
PS: There's no reason for there to be more chemicals in low-alcohol wines. If they taste sour, it's probably because the grapes were picked too early, before the acidity had a chance to fall to a palatable level.
If you have a drinks question for Huon Hooke, please email it to thefullbottle@ fairfaxmedia.com.au