Lower alcohol pours are the darlings of the summer season, showing up on a patio table or picnic blanket near you.
Where typical bottles range from 12 to 14 percent or higher, lower alcohol wines — those containing 11 percent ABV (alcohol by volume) or less — are lighter on their fermented feet. If you are looking to experiment beyond familiar favorites like vinho verde from Portugal or txakoli from Spain’s Basque region, there are delightful options. We suggest three whites and a quite fizzy pink from producers who apply tradition and craft to master the naturally occurring sugar in grapes, an essential step to taming alcohol levels.
Crushed grapes and their resulting juice, called the must, begin their journey of becoming wine when yeast converts sugar to ethyl alcohol (also called ethanol) through fermentation. Riper grapes contain more sugar, and those higher sugar levels can translate into stronger, more alcoholic wines when yeasts are allowed to consume all of that sweetness.
One method of creating a lower alcohol wine is to halt fermentation, leaving residual sugar in. A well-made sweet example is a 2012 Chateau Ste. Michelle “Harvest Select” sweet riesling from Washington State. The back label features a helpful scale indicating that this quaff will taste medium sweet, just shy of very sweet, and registers at 10.5 percent ABV.
But not all wines containing residual sugar taste sweet. We found an ingenious 1 liter bottle from Slovenia, a 2013 Crnko “Jarenincan” (pronounced “churnko yarn-een-chan”), which features a field blend of white grapes — laski riesling (welsch-riesling), sauvignon blanc, and ravenec (muller-thurgau) — grown in the same vineyard and then fermented altogether. This wine, which clocks in at 10 percent ABV, contains residual sugar but you would never know by tasting it. The tug and pull between high acid and residual sugar achieves an overall effect of perfumed fruitiness rather than overt sweetness.
A completely dry white wine from France’s Loire region reminds us that not all varietals achieve high sugar content, even at their ripest, so there are natural limits to how much alcohol they can yield. Producer Domaine de la Bregeonnette vinifies folle blanche, a white grape grown near the mouth of the Loire River in Nantes, at cool temperatures to achieve a lovely, minerally quaff with just 11 percent alcohol.
Sixth generation winemaker Elie Renardat-Fache bottles a sweet sparkling rose — a petillant naturel, or “pet-nat” for short — from gamay and poulsard grapes in the tiny French region of Bugey, between Lyons and Geneva. This bubbly, blushing pink is made in the “ancestrale” method, where partially fermented wine continues its fermentation in the bottle. It retains a good amount of sweetness and achieves just under 8 percent alcohol. At that level, we’re not surprised that it’s known in the region as “breakfast wine.” It is refreshingly sweet and delicate, like a grapey mimosa, perfect for brunch.
When your friends hear you’re pouring these bottles, they’ll beat a path to your patio.
Domaine Renardat-Fache Cerdon du Bugey This delightful pink sparkler offers frothy juiciness along with inviting notes of yeast and raspberry on the nose. Barely loosening the cage around the cork led to an explosive pop on our bottle, so take care. Bubbles settle quickly into frizzante-like softness, sweet with wild strawberry. 7.5 percent ABV. Around $24. At The Wine Bottega, North End, 617-227-6607; Curtis Liquors, Weymouth, 781-331-2345.
Crnko “Jarenincan” 2013 Don’t let the crown cap closure fool you because this 1 liter bottle is not carbonated. That cap signifies an easy-drinking, mostly still, white quaff. Acid and residual sugar pull one another into balance, suggesting more floral and yellow fruit than sugary sweetness. 10 percent ABV. Around $18. At Berman’s Fine Wine & Spirits, Lexington, 781-862-0515; Streetcar Wine & Beer, Jamaica Plain, 617-522-6416.
Chateau Ste. Michelle “Harvest Select” Sweet Riesling 2012 Appearing lightly viscous in the glass, this pale-hued white offers an unexpected whiff of petrol (which we adore, sometimes lacking in other New World rieslings). The palate is sweet, but skillfully balanced with acid and peach-pit bitterness that keeps dried apricot flavors from becoming cloying. 10.5 percent ABV. About $13. Cambridge Wine & Spirits, Cambridge, 617-864-7171; Burlington Wine & Spirits, Burlington, 781-272-3889.
Domaine de la Bregeonnette Folle Blanche 2013 Cool minerality on the nose, suggesting green apple and citrus skin. The tart-dominant palate of this white wine is completely dry, smacking of wet stones and offering a lemony tang that lingers gently. A versatile bottle to go with any repast made from the farmers’ market bounty. 11 percent ABV. Around $16. At Dave’s Fresh Pasta, Somerville, 617-623-0867; The Spirited Gourmet, Belmont, 617-489-9463.