AS JANUARY draws to a close, those new year’s resolutions are getting harder and harder to keep.
For anyone who over-indulged during the festive period by reaching for that extra mince pie or another slice of Christmas cake, weight loss is usually top of the list come Hogmanay.
While our food packaging is covered with information about the amount of fat per portion and a traffic light system to help make healthier choices, dieters often forget about the hidden calories inside a glass of wine.
Some will turn to “dry January” as a solution, giving up alcohol for the first thirty-one days of the year.
But what about those of us who still want to enjoy the odd glass of vino on these dark winter nights?
Fortunately, help is at hand; not every bottle of wine is a calorie-monster waiting to ruin your diet.
We’re talking about proper wines here – not the weird array of bottles that congregate on the bottom row of supermarket shelves with levels of alcohol by volume (ABV) usually hovering around the 5.5% mark.
So-called “low alcohol” wines have their place, but manufacturers are usually very careful not to call them “wine” on the label, instead opting for the grape name, like “light Zinfandel”.
If a wine is going to be sold in the European Union then its ABV usually needs to sit between 8.5% and 15%, although there are exceptions, such as Italy’s sweet fizzy wine Asti – which is jokingly nicknamed “the ideal breakfast wine” because of its low 7% ABV – or its strongest reds, such as Amarone.
When it comes to picking wines with fewer calories then there are a few rules of thumb that can help.
In very general terms, the closer a grape is grown to the equator then the higher its levels of sugars will be as it ripens, giving more alcohol and calories in the resulting wine.
That’s a very rough rule of thumb though – you can grow grapes higher up a hillside to reduce the amount of heat they receive from the Sun.
But looking for wines made in cooler climates is a good starting point, like Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference Muscadet de Sevre et Maine 2013 (£7) with its refreshing acidity and subtle peach flavour and savoury edge, or the Taste the Difference Pouilly Fumé 2015 (£12), which combines aromas of green pepper, grass and asparagus with fruitier lemon notes on the palate.
Hailing from either end of the Loire valley in northern France, both are great examples of cooler-climate wines.
Sainsbury’s leads the pack when it comes to counting the calories, with all its own-label bottles carrying figures for each small 125ml glass – the Muscadet has 85 calories, while the Pouilly Fumé tips the scales at 96.
Some grape varieties also naturally lend themselves to cooler climates and lower-alcohol wines, with Riesling sitting top of my list when I fancy a lighter alternative.
Just because a wine is lower in alcohol doesn’t mean it will necessarily have fewer calories though – and Riesling is the prime example.
The grape can be made into everything from super-sweet to bone dry wines and labels aren’t always that helpful in identifying which is which.
If you’re in any doubt then ask a shop assistant, and this is where independent bottle shops often have the edge over many of the supermarkets.
Dry and off-dry Rieslings are usually a good lighter option, but avoid sweeter dessert wines, which will have lots of residual sugar and the accompanying not-so-hidden calories.
Germany is Riesling’s spiritual heartland and here the wine comes in many guises, from the Co-op’s dry, fresh lemon-fired Devil’s Rock Riesling 2015 (£5.99) with its savoury notes from the Pflaz region, through to an off-dry pair from the Mosel valley, with the Reichsgraf von Kesselstatt Kabinett Riesling 2014 (£9.99) from the Co-op showing off its more intense flavours of lemon rind and lime peel and the Dr L Riesling 2015 (£7.48) from Asda offering fresher lemon and ripe peach flavours coupled with ultra-sharp acidity.
Don’t confine yourself to Europe when it comes to Riesling either – Aldi’s Exquisite Collection Clare Valley 2015 (£6.99) from Australia is great value, offering warmer and richer flavours of lime and lemon sherbet without compromising on the acidity, while Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference Awatere Valley Riesling 2016 (£8) with its unmistakeable honeyed peach and citrus flavours weighs in at just 85 calories per small glass.
Portugal’s lighter wines are also well worth exploring, including Vinho Verde, the “green wine” famous for its youthful fruity flavours and light spritz.
Asda’s Calafia Vinho Verde (£4.78) is at the fruiter end, with flavours of pear and almost confected green apple drops, while Tesco’s Vinho Verde (also £4.78) is fresher and more balanced for my money, with more acidity to match the lemon and green apple flavours.
Lidl’s latest “Wine Cellar” selection, which launches today, includes a peach-focused Nobre Colheita Vinho Verde (£5.99) that has a nice savoury finish, while its Casa Ermelinda Freitas Rosário 2015 (£4.49) from further south on Portugal’s Setúbal peninsula also caught my attention thanks to its good fruit-acid balance, with lemon, pear drops and a hint of honeysuckle, all at just 10.5% ABV.
While there are many scary-sounding techniques for lowering the alcohol content of wine – from electro-dialysis and spinning cone columns all the way through to reverse osmosis and ultra-filtration – there are also more-natural methods for keeping the ABV under control.
One option is to pick the grapes slightly earlier so the sugar levels are lower, which is the technique used in New Zealand to produce the Villa Maria Lighter Sauvignon Blanc (£11.95) on sale at Vino Wines in Edinburgh.
There’s no compromise on the nose, with tropical guava aromas mixed in with the tell-tale green pepper, cut grass and nettle, yet it does definitely feel lighter in the mouth, despite the intense peach and apricot flavours.