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Low-Alcohol Wine Is Still Heart-Healthy, but How's It Taste?

Researchers find that reducing alcohol doesn't impact cardiovascular benefits, but winemakers doubt the appeal

Jacob Gaffney
Posted: June 19, 2012

A new study by a team of researchers in South Africa has found that reducing a red wine's alcohol percentage by 50 percent does not reduce its benefits for the heart. But several winemakers say that even if the wine is good for you, it probably doesn't taste good.

The scientists used a technique called lirisation to lower the alcohol level in a French Cabernet Sauvignon from 12 percent to 6 percent alcohol. Lab tests showed that antioxidant levels remained the same, according to the study, published in South African Medical Journal.

The scientists also tested wine samples on lab rats. After inducing cardiac arrests, the researchers found that blood flow was restored faster in rodents who had been drinking both 6 percent and 12 percent alcohol wines, compared to the control group.

Co-author Sandrine Lecour, a cardiovascular researcher at the University of Cape Town, said a reduced-alcohol wine could be acceptable to consumers, especially since multiple studies show that while alcohol has health benefits, excessive consumption has severe consequences. "The lirisation process used to remove the alcohol from wine ensures that the wine is not unpalatable and that its antioxidant properties are not altered," she said.

But when Wine Spectator presented the findings to several winemakers, most had serious doubts on the quality of reduced-alcohol wines. "While the antioxidant effect might not be altered, the body, mouthfeel and pleasure most probably would," said winemaker Richard Langford of Elderton Wines in Barossa Valley, Australia. "Wine isn’t consumed for health reasons in the same way bran isn’t eaten for pleasure."

Paul Pontallier, Château Margaux's general manager, said he believes that tannins, more than alcohol, lend antioxidant properties to the wine. "This study, therefore, did not come as a surprise to me," Pontallier said. "However, in terms of taste, the change is very important as the balance of flavors is totally different depending on whether the alcohol content is 6 percent or 12 percent."

Santa Cruz, Calif.-based Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon added that while it's a "lovely thing" to find that lower-alcohol wines still hold great antioxidant power, "in general these low-alcohol red wines are pretty anemic, and just don't satisfy the palate, rather like problematic non-alcoholic beer."

However, Grahm said he is intrigued by the study and is already thinking about the potential for a successful business for such products. "Methinks that perhaps there might be an interesting market for a red analog to a Riesling auslese, if one begins with a red wine of sufficient acidity," he said. "I'm not sure if I would be the first volunteer to taste this sort of effort, but I would be toward the front of the row. "

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