Going easy in the summer – wines of under 11% alcohol

One of the TOP 3 questions posed to us in our wine shops – mainly from spring till the autumn – is whether we can recommend something with low alcohol. Luckily, we can. But when exactly can we say that a light, summer white wine has low alcohol?

According to Hungarian regulations, a wine starts at 9% of alcohol.
Above that it’s wine, but below 9% it isn’t wine. We don’t know exactly what it is then, but under 9% it officially isn’t wine! We now selected wines of under 11% of alcohol for the warmer days and asked some winemakers about the secret of low alcohol. Balázs Sike, László Alkonyi and Csaba Bereczki answered our questions.


Why is it good?

“Because there’s no connection between enjoyment value, quality and the alcohol level, especially when we drink it as a spritzer [fröccs in Hungarian]. I mean that if you chose a wine for its flavours and not because you want it to work quickly. I’ll be honest; the soul of the winemaker is happy at those times when his wine is popular and the bartender is as well, because people order it more frequently.


What can be regarded as low?

The perception of alcohol content has changed a lot in recent times. In the socialist era, high alcohol was a sign of value. Certainly, high alcohol in non-ideal circumstances can administer the stability of wine, but today there is no need for that. The problem is that in those days the high-yield cultivated grapes required sucrose which is a sure key to disharmony. And they tried very hard as the main point was that it should hit you. Despite the fact that in Italy, even back then, it wasn’t awkward to ask for a ‘ten-point-five’ in a carafe with lunch. The level is different now in Hungary a well: it shifted towards higher quality and good balance. And all this in a natural way,” continues Balázs.



Balance. But how?

“Everything depends on the harvest. Csepke, for example, was created out of 22 harvest days, with piled up fermentation. We don’t have temperature control, so we have to catch a balanced wine with low alcohol with the timing of the harvest. We don’t do a trial harvest, I do not take measurements but, instead, I walk along the fairly colourful Furmint and Hárslevelű rows and pick the bunches or those parts of bunches that are harmoniously ripened. They should have lots of flavours and good acidity but not be too tannic or phenolic. There are some deep green clusters that are ripe and there are golden yellow ones in which the sugar is not ready yet. That’s how the 22 harvest days add up. The whole bunches are put into the press every day and I press them slightly without loosening,” says László Alkonyi from the Kaláka winery. “Because of the full-blown aromas and ripe acids, one has to be really accurate in catching the right time. Tasting, pressing the must and observing it continuously is vital. Putting it briefly, we get 11% alcohol from the 18 must degrees. Earlier, granddad, the brother-in-law or the godfather wouldn’t even pick it at 18 degrees, otherwise they would’ve had to ‘sugar’ it up.”

“The timing of the harvest is the most important aspect,” agrees Balázs. “The grapes have to have the sugar in them, which makes the wine ferment nicely and naturally, and which can make it a wine. But alongside that, there has to be enough acidity, or the right structure of acids in it. Malic acid is sharper and tartaric acid is broader. There are too many malic acids in unripe grapes, and the wine can easily become sharper in terms of acidity, which even at lower than a 6% level of acidity can be unpleasant. Higher tartaric acid is friendlier and gives the wine a completely different flavour. In order that the sugars shouldn’t sky rocket, the aromas should mature and the acids should noticeably remain, which means an earlier harvest these days, owing to global warming.”

“Swift processing and temperature-controlled fermentation helps a lot,” says Csaba Bereczki, Kárásztelek’s winemaker. “It’s not compulsory but it’s also one way. Beside the harvest, the second secret is halting fermentation by cooling. 16 grams of sugar will be 1% alcohol. If we leave some sugar in the wine, the alcohol naturally decreases slightly. This can happen spontaneously when fermentation stops by itself, or in a controlled way when we cool down the wine to around zero and the yeasts stop working, leaving the sugar intact, instead of breaking it down to alcohol.”



Are there any other solutions? 

“In Europe, the situation is different, on the old continent there is a more traditional approach – luckily, I should add. In the US, a bit of diluting is acceptable in lowering the alcohol, but at the same time it also affects the harmony. Everything else is artificial intervention. It’s a waste of time even talking about it,” says Balázs.

“I taste, analyse, look at the colour of the seeds every day, from every parcel. Early picking is not enough; if the grapes are unripe they have enormous acidity. I have to catch the ripening phase when they are tasty, aromatic and sufficiently ripe and still have enough acidity. Gentle pressing, only the free-run juice, the must settled to be crystal clear, controlled fermentation in temperature-controlled, press-resistant tanks,” Csaba sums up the making of Friza. “Of course, there are varieties that accumulate less sugar, like Irsai. This is also a thing worth paying attention too, because it would be hard to make a low-alcohol wine from Zenit, Zéta or Zalagyöngye,” concludes Balázs.                    


And we would only add as much as: sometimes it feels good to drink a low-alcohol wine, at other times higher might be better, but for those who look for lighter wines, we subjectively selected a dozen ‘under 11s’.