Smart, healthier drinking is on trend and leading savvy restaurants to fortify their wine menus with lower-alcohol options.
“Most people in big cities don’t do three-martini lunches anymore or fill up with heavy dinners. We are moving toward a healthier way of living with regard to food and beverage, which extends to people preferring refreshing low-ABV cocktails and wines,” says Salvatore Tafuri, bar director at the Times Square EDITION’s 701West. “Drinking low ABV for lunch means people can get back to work without feeling dizzy.”
Consumer awareness regarding lower-alcohol wine is in its infancy. Amy Racine, wine director at 701West and Tafuri’s colleague, notes that guests actually want more low-ABV wines than they vocalize. “I think guests are interested in having a few great glasses of wine but are still interested in waking up and feeling great and ready for the day,” she says.
Angela Gargano, wine/spirits director and lead sommelier at the Triple Creek Guest Ranch in Montana, suggests lower-alcohol options, especially on hot days or when guests are especially active. “When our guests have outdoor activities planned in the afternoon we can give them something delicious with lunch without the effects of alcohol,” she says. “I think many people don’t realize that lower-alcohol wines are even an option.”
Renowned Chicago mixologist Liz Pearce and her husband, chef Jonathan Meyer, recently opened bar/restaurant Flora Fauna, which features several lower-alcohol wines. For Pearce, low-ABV wines actually pair better with Flora Fauna’s spice-forward fare that packs a lot of heat. “Those huge robust Napa Cabs and the like are better saved for the steakhouses,” she says.
Racine loves the food-friendliness of lower-alcohol wines, noting the options tend to pair best with many of the dishes at 701West. When the wine is lower in alcohol, the intensity isn’t quite as high, allowing nuanced layers of food flavors to unfurl. Some of her favorite lower-alcohol options include Spain’s Txakoli, German riesling, and selections from Chablis and Champagne.
Indeed, the wine world has ample lower-alcohol resources to work with. Pearce suggests German rieslings or any varietal with a little residual sugar that originates from a colder climate. “I just drank this 2012 Von Racknitz Riesling with some of our food at Flora Fauna the other night, and it was so perfect for it. Szechuan pork and spicy seafood paired perfectly.”
Gargano suggests coupling lower-alcohol wines with spicy foods (which are notoriously difficult to pair) and cites pét-nat as her favorite style. “These spritzy and fresh sparklers are a great choice to look for when searching out low-alcohol wines,” she says. Piquettes, made from the second pressings of grapes, are a naturally low-ABV bubbly drink. Gargano is especially fond of a varietal out of Old Westminster Winery in Maryland.
Racine also looks to German wines for sparkling inspiration, but in this case she’s thinking of sparkling wine. Her choice is Eins Zwei Zero (Zero Alcohol Brut) from Weingut Josef Leitz in the Rheingau region of Germany. It’s also a great opportunity to weave a non-alcoholic product into the wine program, rather than put it in an “alcohol-free” beverage menu filled with sodas and sparling water.
When thinking about dishes that play well with lower-alcohol wines Pearce is partial to another German varietal, gewürztraminer, paired with Thai or Indian cuisine. “I also love riesling with anything that has exotic spices—North African, Jamaican—and any cuisine that lets the food sing, and the wine pair—not the other way around. I’m always food-focused.”
In the end it is all about the flavor experience as a whole. Good food with a wine that makes it sing is memorable, be it lunch or dinner, and lower-alcohol wines tend to work best with meals.
“I think the American palate is moving away from big bombs of intensity in their wine. They are avoiding overloads of oak, alcohol, and sugar,” Racine says. “Our wine preferences are turning more towards subtleties, and we’re excited about that.”
How Low Can You Go?
Three wines to ease you into the low-ABV trend.
- Oyster River, Morphos, Pet-Nat, Maine, NV (10% alcohol)
- La Luna, Lambrusco Secco, NV (11.5%)
- La Clarine Farm, Mourvedre ‘Alto’ Sierra Foothills, California, 2016 (11.7% alcohol)