by Tim Atkin

Wine and alcohol: how low should you go?

“And how many units of wine do you drink a week?” If you’ve been to see your GP for a health assessment recently, you may recognize the question as well as the dilemma facing the patient. Do you lie, knowing that most doctors double what people tell them? Or do you tell the truth and receive a lecture that makes you feel as if you belong on a park bench with a bottle of meths in both hands?

I decided to do the latter. As a professional taster, I assess an average of 250 wines a week. Even though I spit them out, my body absorbs some of the alcohol they contain. I reckon that slurping my way through 100 samples is the same as downing a bottle of wine. And then there’s what I drink with dinner every night, rarely less than two glasses and generally closer to four. Add all that together and I probably consume 50 units of wine a week.

No wonder my GP looked concerned. According to the government, the “safe” limit for men is 21 units, the rough equivalent of three bottles of wine. Should I be worried? By the standards of someone like the French actor Gérard Depardieu, who famously guzzles six bottles a day, I’m positively temperate. I also know a lot of healthy winemakers in their eighties who’ve drunk 50 units a week all their adult lives. And yet…

For the purposes of this piece, I decided to cut down on booze for a while. I started at the bottom of the heap by tasting 15 alcohol-free wines. This is a growing sector of the market, apparently. All the supermarkets stock ranges of alcohol free products and there are two companies, The Alcohol-Free Shop (www.alcoholfree.co.uk) and LoNo (www.lono.co.uk), which specialise in them.

What were they like? Better than they used, I must admit. Either the technology has improved or producers are using better quality grapes, because one or two of them were actually palatable. But are they still wines? Not in my opinion. If I want to avoid alcohol altogether, I’d rather drink fruit juice or an elderflower pressé. Wine without alcohol is like boeuf Bourguignon without the beef.

Rather than drink an artificial product, where the alcohol has been removed using reverse osmosis or something called a “spinning cone”, why not buy a wine that is naturally lighter in body? Real wine varies in alcoholic strength between 5.5% (for sweet moscato d’asti) and 20% (for fortified wines, such as port), but there’s plenty of stuff under 11%.

Admittedly, some of it is sweet or medium dry (where the fermentation has been arrested to keep the alcohol low), but provided it’s got enough acidity, that isn’t a problem. Mosel riesling and Asti spumante are good examples.

Dry white wines are slightly harder to track down, but prosecco, vinho verde and Hunter Valley semillon all fit the bill. You’ll struggle to find a decent red wine under 11%, however. The only one I like is Giardini Merlot from the Veneto. In most cases, you’d be better off adding a little water to your favourite red, rosso or rouge than drinking a low alcohol alternative. I haven’t asked her, but I suspect that even my GP might agree.

THE WINES

Sainsbury’s Sparkling Alcohol Free Aromatised Wine (£2.95, 0%)
Frothy, light and elderflower-fresh, this is crisp and refreshing fizz from Germany with an attractively floral perfume and a citrus fruit bite.

Sainsbury’s Asti (£4.79, 7%)
The best of the supermarket Astis in my view, this is sweet, grapey and refreshing, like alcoholic lemon sherbet. Great with lemon tart.

2009 Giardini Merlot, Veneto (£5.49, 9.5%, Marks & Spencer)
It might not be Château Pétrus, or even Bordeaux Supérieur, but this northern Italian red is light, cherryish and appealing with very soft tannins. Try it chilled.

Ombra Prosecco (£10.99 or £8.79 by the case, 11%, Oddbins)
There are cheaper proseccos around, but this is superior stuff from a good producer. Aromatic, just off-dry and appealingly savoury on the palate.

2009 Willi Haag Brauneberger Juffer Riesling Kabinett (£11.95, 8.5%, The Wine Society)
A lovely, featherweight, apple and pear-like Mosel riesling from the brilliant 2009 vintage, this is beautifully balanced, with acidity and peachy sweetness in perfect harmony.

2002 Tyrrell’s Vat 1 Hunter Valley Semillon (£25, 10%, selected branches of Majestic)
Tyrrell’s majestic Hunter Valley semillons age wonderfully well in bottle. This creamy, waxy, yet bracingly acidic white is just getting into its stride.

Originally published in The Times