Chilling Out with 'Lite Whites'

Cool summer wines that are long in flavor, but low in alcohol

Photo Sasabune Omakase Modified: Flickr/erin/CC 4.0

I really enjoy the big reds — well-balanced wines that nevertheless have mind-bending alcohol levels exceeding 15 percent — but sometimes a man just likes to sit in the shade with a cool, low-in-alcohol white wine that he can drink all afternoon.

However, most table whites, even from the traditional regions of Europe, weigh in at 13% or over, particularly now that we have global warming combined with customer demand for riper grapes. Unless the wine is meant to be sweet, the more sugar in the grapes, the higher the alcohol in the wine.

Fortunately, there are enclaves that still make traditional wines with alcohols under 10% but still with lots of flavors. Many of these wines are made with fragrant, aromatic grape varieties such as Riesling, Moscato and Gewurztraminer that have crisp natural acidity and which also taste great when chilled.

Let’s start our search for “lite whites” with Moscato d’Asti — not to be confused with Asti Spumante — produced in the area around the small town of Asti in Italy’s northwest Piedmont. The Moscato d’Asti style is mildly frizzy with bubbles you can feel in the mouth more than see in the glass, mildly sweet but with balancing acidity, and very low in alcohol, sometimes less than half the alcohol of most table wines. Served chilled, it is a delightful summer drink and a good replacement for the more-bubbly traditional sparkling wine.

One of my favorites is the Paolo Saracco Moscato d’Asti, and his 2010 vintage weighs in at a super-low 6% alcohol and is delightfully floral with the flavors of mellow apples and with a frizzante zestiness that almost tickles the palate. It’s not sweet enough for me to think of it as a dessert wine, although I wouldn’t reject an almond biscotti or a shortbread biscuit served with it.

Another area to look for low-alcohol whites that are fragrant and refreshing is Germany, where traditional whites such as Riesling and Gewürztraminer do not reach high levels of sugar, and thus alcohol, because of the northern climate.

One of the widely available brands that is P.J. Valckenberg, who makes and imports a variety of German wines at different price levels. Among the lighter table wines in the PJV portfolio are the 2010 Two Princes Riesling (9.5%), the 2010 Kesselstatt Piesporter Goldtröptchen Riesling (10%), the 2010 Schloss Saarsteiner Riesling Kabinett (9.5%), and the mildly sweeter 2010 Maximin Grünhaüser Abtsberg Riesling Spatlese (8.0%).

For variety, try the simple, spicy, very well-balanced 2010 Valckenberg Gewurztraminer (10%). It also is a low-dollar white, as well.

Once you’ve sipped a couple of lighter-alcohol whites, do your own search in your favorite wine shops for colder climate whites to add to your portfolio. And try not to feel to delicate about it.