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BERGER: Are low-alcohol wines on the rise?

Published: Tuesday, June 5, 2012 at 3:17 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, June 5, 2012 at 3:17 p.m.

The announcement last week that octogenarian sex therapist Ruth Westheimer was introducing a line of low-alcohol wines, to be sold in New York, raised the question: Why?

The answer is easy to figure out — and it relates only partly to Dr. Westheimer’s justification that a small amount of alcohol can be good for romance, thus the need for her Vin d’Amour wines, which weigh in at 6 percent alcohol.

She added that consuming too much alcohol can negatively affect performance.

This may well be true, but I believe the real reason for this line of wines, specifically targeted at New York, is that they can be sold in New York grocery stores.

New York law prohibits beverages over 6 percent alcohol from being sold in grocery stores, but wines with 6 percent alcohol or less do not face this restriction. And thus the opportunity to get better-quality wines into New York food stores.

There are already a handful of such low-alcohol wines in New York food stores; most are not very good. Also, there are non-alcoholic wines (Fre from Trinchero, Ariel from J. Lohr), which are traditional wines from which the alcohol has been removed. But they really don’t satisfy wine lovers. (Fre is the national leader in non-alcoholic wine sales with 173,000 cases. National sales rose 11 percent last year over 2010.)

The subject of lower-alcohol wines seems to be popping up in various locations recently, such as with those who are selling wine to the Far East.

One reason is that some East Asian cultures, along with aboriginal Australians and Native Americans, are among the ethnic groups known to have lower levels of the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase in their systems. The enzyme helps people metabolize alcohol more rapidly.

Medical authorities often suggest that those with low levels of the enzyme should consume less alcohol, and thus wines with lower alcohol come into play.

Also, Bernard Fontannaz, president of the South African wine distribution company Origin Wine, was quoted last week in a British drinks magazine saying, “Our consumer base is declining and low-alcohol wine is a way to get young consumers into wine ... 5.5% alcohol is acceptable to many people.”

And Michael Paetzold, a German-born, French-based wine technologist, has invented lir, which he says is wine with less than 6 percent alcohol, which he is marketing toward those for whom traditional alcohol levels are too high. Thus far, lir is not distributed in the United States.

Lower-alcohol wine from traditional grape varieties isn’t a new idea. It was pioneered here in 1975 by the late, German-trained Ed Friedrich at San Martin Vineyards. His product, called “soft” wine, had 6 percent alcohol and was made in a manner that paid homage to the German Rieslings of his homeland, some of which were as low in alcohol as 7 percent.

Soft wines were sold around through the mid-1980s, and eventually faded.

Wine of the Week: 2011 Toad Hollow Rosé of Pinot Noir, Sonoma County, “Eye of the Toad” ($12) — This terrific pink wine for summer sipping has an aroma of strawberry and raspberry, is relatively dry, and works as a perfect accompaniment to salmon. And it has only 11.5 percent alcohol.

Dan Berger lives in Sonoma County, where he publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a weekly wine newsletter. Write to him at winenut@gmail.com.

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