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Drink Low and Slow: Low-Alcohol Wines Perfect for Summer
by Jonathon Alsop
July 2000

Technically, there's no category called "low-alcohol wines." Most white wine hovers around 11 percent alcohol, and most red is in the 13 percent range. Lately, California has been churning out big, bruising, expensive red zinfandels with 15 percent and more, and the wine-selling and wine-buying communities have come to equate high alcohol with high quality.

Although the difference in alcohol between different wines may be only two or three percentage points, it makes a big difference in context. If a light Italian pinot grigio comes in at 11 percent, a glass of one of those scary zins at 15 percent will get you almost 1.5 times as intoxicated, which is profound, especially if you think you're just going to have a glass or two. On the other hand, a Portuguese Vinho Verde with seven or eight percent delivers 40% less active ingredient, and that's welcome on a steamy summer day. Tastes great versus less intoxicating: you make the call.

Granted, wine is much more alcohol-intensive that beer, and Scotch lovers might make the case that all wine is a low-alcohol beverage, but some wines dip way below the normal range, and these are ideal for summer drinking.

Casal Garcia Vinho Verde (about $6, at Wine Vault in Framingham, Kappy's in Sudbury, and many others) Portugal is a tremendous source for wine bargains these days, both red and white. Vinho Verde -- called "green" because it's bottled so young -- is a brisk, zippy white with fresh apple and pear flavors. Another by-product of being bottled so young is a healthy dose to CO2 in the wine that gives it a light, refreshing carbonation. The label on most Vinho Verde promises 10-plus percent alcohol, but anyone who's had a good Pilsner knows that this is in the same range. NOTE: be sure to buy the newest vintage always -- in this case, 1999 -- and serve it cold, as cold as beer.

Bonny Doon Ca del Solo (about $12, at Kappy's and others) Don't let the Italianate label fool you: this low-alcohol muscat is the brainchild of California winemaker/madman Randall Graham. Flavors of rich, ripe peaches make this wine taste almost sweet, even though technically it isn't. Beautiful with a big plate of fruit and cheese after a long day at the beach.

La Spinetta Moscato d'Asti (about $12, Fifth Avenue Liquors in Framingham and others) People are more familiar with the ultra-cheap Italian sparkler Asti Spumante, but at the other end of the quality curve is Moscato d'Asti, a brilliant sparkling wine that's sweet, creamy, and low in alcohol. At a wine tasting a few years ago, I heard someone exclaim, "Now this is a wine you could have for breakfast!" which I found pretty disturbing. I think he was talking about this wine, though.

Wine Genome Project Report
Recent DNA testing reveals that the genetic parent of California zinfandel is an Italian grape called Primitivo that comes from Apulia, the heel of Italy. On the genome drawing board: repairing whatever causes Kendall-Jackson chardonnay to taste so much like riesling, identifying the genetic string that makes restaurateurs charge three times retail price for the same bottle of wine, and eliminating altogether the gene responsible for international wine snobbery.

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