What is the Sweet Spot for Low Alcohol Wines?
March 16, 2021
The good news is that the US wine industry is finally listening to consumer requests for lower alcohol/lower calorie wines. The bad news is there is not agreement on what this category really means in terms of alcohol level. To complicate matters, the large growth in the flavored wine category – meaning wines that have added components, such as fruit and/or herbs – makes it more challenging to define “Low Alcohol Wine.” In order to make sense of this new and exciting “Better for You Wine Category,” it is useful to examine some definitions and consult a few experts.
Defining “Wine” and Alcohol Levels
In the EU, wine is defined simply as a: “product obtained exclusively from the total or partial alcoholic fermentation of fresh grapes, whether or not crushed, or of grape must.”1 Here alcohol levels are not specified.
However, in the US, the TTB defines wine as: “produced on a bonded wine premises, from grapes, other fruit (including berries), or other suitable agricultural products…. containing not less than 7 percent, and not more than 24 percent of alcohol by volume.2
Interestingly, in 2006, the US and EU signed a wine trade agreement, that defined wine as having an actual alcohol content of not less than 7 percent and not more than 22 percent. Given this, there is a rather large alcoholic range when it comes to defining wine. So what is a low alcohol wine?
Average Alcohol in Wines Sold in the US
Despite the fact that wine can range from 7 to 22 percent in alcohol, the majority of wine made in the US averages between 12 – 15 percent. William Keer, a senior scientist with the Alcohol Research Group of the Public Health Institute reports, that on average, wine is 11.6 percent alcohol.
The reason all of this is so important is that there is a growing global movement towards moderation and health, especially amongst younger consumers. According to a recent Wine Intelligence survey, 26 percent of Americans said they would be likely to buy low or no alcohol wines.
So What is the Definition of a Low Alcohol Wine?
In consulting several experts, there is not yet an agreed upon definition, but several believe the “sweet spot” to be between 7 percent – 10 percent alcohol per 5 ounce serving.
According to Heidi Scheid, Executive VP of Scheid Family Wines that created the Sunny with a Chance of Flowers brand, “We experimented with different alcohol levels when crafting Sunny, and decided that 9 percent was the sweet spot for us. We remove alcohol using the more gentle reverse osmosis process and the wine tastes delicious. Sunny also has zero sugar and is sustainably certified, two product attributes that we think are really important to today’s mindful consumer.”
Jessica Tomei, Winemaker of Cupcake-Lighthearted agrees. “I created Cupcake LightHearted after realizing there wasn’t a lower-calorie and lower-alcohol wine option on the market that was delicious and complemented my active lifestyle,” reported Jessica Tomei. “I’m an avid runner, and some days I want something that’s lower in calories and alcohol but doesn’t sacrifice flavor. Cupcake LightHearted checks all the boxes, and at 8 percent alcohol and only 80 calories per glass, it tastes great.”
Alison Crowe, winemaker for Sea Wave wines, to be released in May 2021, has crafted them at 7 percent alcohol and 79 calories per 5 ounce serving. “Being that some wines can just naturally fall to 11 percent alcohol, like some sparkling products, roses and Rieslings, I tend to think “Low Alcohol” wines as a category are 10 percent and under. I tend to find that seven to 10 percent is a bit of a “sweet spot” in that you can still taste and drink like a wine but calories and carbs are significantly lower.”
Table 1 lists many of the new wine brands that fall into the 7 to 10 percent alcohol range, per 5-ounce serving.
Table 1: Low Alcohol Wine Brands Between 7 – 10 Percent Alcohol Per 5 Ounce Serving
Better for You Wines with Alcohol Levels Higher Than 10 Percent
Despite the potential “sweet spot” of 7-10 percent alcohol level for “low alcohol wines,” there have been a few other brands advertised as part of the Better for You Wine Category with slightly higher alcohol levels. Some of these include: Bev, Alvaline, and Liquid Light.
But What About Flavored and Seltzer Wines Below Seven Percent Alcohol?
When the White Claw hard seltzer (5 percent alcohol/90 calories per can) phenomenon hit the US market, several large wine producers countered with their own products. A hard seltzer is simply sparkling water with alcohol added, and the alcohol can be wine. Examples include E&J Gallo’s Barefoot Hard Seltzer (4 percent alcohol, 70 calories), Barefoot Spritzer (5.5 percent alcohol, 150 calories), Trinchero’s Del Mark Wine Seltzer (4 percent alcohol, 95 calories) and Cense Wine Spritzers (4.5 percent, 85 calories).
What is interesting about this lower alcohol category is that almost all of the entries are flavored, meaning they have some type of fruit or herb flavoring added. Part of the reason, according to winemaker Alison Crowe, is because “anything under 7 percent alcohol in wine seems different because we’re so used to the alcohol being such a contributor to how we experience almost every part of the beverage, from the aroma to attack to mouthfeel and finish. That’s why some products in this category include fruit flavors and aromas. They work especially well for super-low alcohol wine-based drinks like sangrias or spritzers.”
And consumers seem to love this Flavored/Seltzer wine category, because it is growing rapidly. According to Jon Moramarco with bw166, the flavored wine category grew in volume by 90 percent in 2020. And the Jefferies Financial Group has reported that they expect hard seltzer sales to double and reach $6.5 billion by 2024. It is no wonder that there is so much interest in this category.
Next Steps: Enhanced Label Transparency
As the no-low alcohol wine category expands, along with lower alcohol Flavored wine, there is still a need for enhanced clarity on wine labels, along with more ingredient transparency. The new health and moderation trend that is sweeping the globe has caused consumers to read labels more carefully before deciding which product to purchase. Therefore, the wine industry needs to heed the lesson of White Claw, which is very clear about its ingredients, along with the alcohol level, calories and carbs per can. Not all consumers can easily compute what a 5 ounce serving is in a 375ml or 750ml bottle/box/can. This needs to be explained clearly on the label.
2. TTB 27 CFR 4.10.
by Dr. Liz Thach, MW
Dr. Liz Thach, MW is a wine writer, educator, and consultant. She enjoys writing and teaching about wine, food, travel, and lifestyle industries. She is also the Distinguished Professor of Wine & Management at Sonoma State University, where she teaches part-time. Liz can be contacted at Liz@lizthach.com.