For some years, concern has been expressed that wines are becoming more alcoholic. It's a favourite theme of wine writers, who complain that the "burn" of a 13.5% abv Chardonnay can destroy whatever finesse the wine might otherwise have displayed.
Wine writer and technical expert Jamie Goode says: "There's increasing concern about the trend of rising alcoholic levels. Table wines used to hover around the 12% mark
- now it's rare to find them below 13%, and wines with 14% or 14.5% alcohol are commonly encountered. And it's not all that unusual to see wines tipping the scales at 15%."
The fact that wines are becoming stronger in alcohol than they once were is also providing fuel for the critics who argue the industry is somehow tricking people into drinking more than they intend to.
The irony is that the technology exists to make wines less alcoholic, but until very recently, complex European regulations prohibited most wines produced in this way
from being sold in the UK market.
It's a situation that the Wine & Spirit Trade Association has been anxious to change.
The Food Standards Agency has finally reported some progress. "The European Commission has now permitted EU wines which use a number of experimental techniques, including reverse osmosis and spinning cone, to be
marketed across Europe," an FSA spokeswoman explains.
"The ruling came into force in mid-October and carries a number of conditions. The experimental practice used must be allowed through resolutions passed by the International Organisation of Vine & Wine and the use of the experimental practice must be noted on both
the accompanying documentation and wine making records."
WSTA chief executive Jeremy Beadles explains that, until now, European law had only made two exceptions to the ban. "The bilateral agreement with the US permits American wines to use those technologies, and you could get an exemption licence for the use of those technologies within member countries - but the wine could only be sold within those countries," he says.
He is understandably enthusiastic about the progress that has been made. "We've been campaigning on this for 18 months to get a change in the European legislation, which is not an easy thing to achieve," he says.
"We worked well with the UK government on it and our view is that it creates a level playing field that wasn't there previously. It should allow a release of lower-alcohol products in the marketplace, which is what consumers say they want. It's good news all round, for producers and retailers."
The WSTA says the new ruling will not just affect EU wines, but lower-alcohol wines from Australia, South Africa, South America ... in fact, anywhere where reverse osmosis or spinning cone technology is used. Producers will be restricted to reducing a wine's alcoholic strength by no more than two percentage points, though this ruling is purely to preserve the wine's structure and integrity rather than for any health reasons.
But if more lower-alcohol wines are on the way, is there really a consumer demand for them? There hasn't exactly been a stampede but, as Beadles points out, there isn't yet much of a range to select from. And although critics may be extolling the virtues of wines with 10% or 11% alcohol, many wine drinkers are still slightly suspicious.
A recent Wine Intelligence survey found that half of regular wine consumers would not want to buy a wine with an alcoholic content a t such a low level.
Forty-eight per cent of the 1,000-plus respondents said they would buy a wine at 13%
abv, a similar figure to those who said they would buy a wine at 11%-12% abv. But just 25% would buy a wine at 9%-10% abv and a mere 14% would go below that strength.
Does the EU ruling spell the end for 14.5% abv blockbusters? Probably not, and it's too early to be sure of any downward migration on the part of the consumer. But at a time when some wine drinkers think nothing of adding ice cubes to their glasses, it's likely that alcoholic strength isn't quite the selling point it might once have been.
If suppliers choose to take advantage of the liberalised EU position, and retailers are happy to list the resulting wines, consumers will at least have the option to select lower-alcohol wines. It's an option that hasn't really existed until now.
Four ways of reducing alcoholic content
1. Reverse osmosis. Some alcohol is removed from the wine through a distillation process, along with water. Water is then added back to the tank to create a wine of the desired alcoholic strength.
2. Spinning cone. A large stainless-steel device which removes volatile chemicals from the wine. Steam is pumped into a rotating column from below, which evaporates some of the alcohol in the wine poured in from above.
3. Adding water. Diluting the must will have the effect of reducing alcohol, and although it is known that such practices do go on, they are banned everywhere.
4. Preventing grapes from fully ripening. There are various methods of controlling the sugar content of grapes, such as trimming the leaf canopy, picking early or irrigating shortly before the harvest. Although this can produce good results (Brown Brothers' Zibibbo is one example of how alcohol levels can be naturally reduced at the viticultural stage), winemakers risk creating wines with green, unrounded flavours.