How Good Are ‘Better for You’ Wines?

The emerging category of wines is marketed as a healthier option; we subjected them to blind tasting

How Good Are ‘Better for You’ Wines?
Consumers want healthier alcoholic beverages, but is there truth behind the marketing? (Galena Georgieva/Getty)
May 24, 2021

Heidi Scheid enjoys a glass of wine every night. "Wine is just a part of everyday living, the perfect way to segue from a busy schedule to a relaxed evening," says Scheid, who is the executive vice president of Scheid Family Wines in Monterey, Calif. "But I also like to get up early, exercise and get a lot accomplished." For her, drinking a few glasses of wine at night isn't conducive to waking up at the crack of dawn the next day, and limiting herself to a single glass of wine makes her feel deprived.

Scheid created the brand Sunny with a Chance of Flowers, joining the growing ranks of brands marketing themselves as "Better for You" (BFY). There's no legal or agreed-upon definition of wines in this category, but they’re generally lower in alcohol, sugar and calories and and stress sustainability and/or transparency in ingredient labeling. In the case of Sunny with a Chance of Flowers, the wine is marketed as sustainably grown, with no added sugar, 85 calories per 5-ounce glass and 9 percent alcohol.

What defines these wines as BFY is their marketing. They’re not dramatically different from many wines. Most table wines are between 11 to 14 percent alcohol and have 120 to 130 calories per glass, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And, while many BFY brands proudly state they have no added sugar, it's actually illegal to add sugar into table wines in some winegrowing regions, including California.

Low-calorie wines have historically been marketed toward women and focused on body image, but the current BFY wines have a different vibe: They’re about offering healthier alternatives. "I think wine as a category just hasn't been that interested in meeting consumers where they are," says Scheid.

She adds that other products have brands that are marketed with a "better for you" vibe. Everything from detergent to yogurt has offerings that suggest they are a healthier option. Other beverages, including beer and spirits, are moving into low- and no-calorie options. Why not wine?

We took a look at BFY wines and put 25 of them into blind tastings in our Napa office among their BFY peers and other, non-BFY wines. For the most part they fared well—with an average alcohol of 10 percent, they were light-bodied and direct, but offered fresh and aromatic flavors.

Scheid and other BFY vintners take inspiration from an unlikely source: White Claw. They suspect part of the hard seltzer's appeal is because the cans clearly boast 5 percent alcohol by volume and 100 calories, and that some consumers like that sense of transparency—most wines' alcohol percentages are practically hidden in small fonts on labels, and calories are typically not listed. Consumers simply want to know what they are consuming.

Striving for lower alcohol

New Zealand winemakers began exploring the opportunity for a low-alcohol wine more than a decade ago. In 2009, Marlborough vintner Dr. John Forrest noticed that when pouring wines to consumers, some preferred the lower alcohol wines to higher alcohol ones. That is, wine lovers preferred the taste—not just the idea—of a lower-alcohol quaff.

Forrest's observations evolved into the New Zealand Winegrowers Lighter Wines Initiative, launched in 2014, which so far has invested NZ$17 million (US$12.2 million) in research and development to make New Zealand a leader in low-alcohol wines, and to produce those wines as naturally as possible. There are 18 Kiwi wineries in the BFY space, though only a handful of them are available in the U.S. at the moment.

The Lighter Wines Initiative program director, Dr. David Jordan, points out that New Zealand was already known for making light, fresh wines from slow-ripening grapes in cool-climates that result easily in lower sugars and alcohols. Now the focus is on consistently producing wines with 8.5 to 10 percent alcohol by volume, using techniques such as canopy management and selecting particular yeast strains.

"We were really concerned about the palate weight and the feel of the wines as the alcohol was reduced," says Jordan. "We knew we had flavor and aroma in abundance in our wines. We knew we had a strong starting point which puts us ahead of many of our competitors in this space."

Their research was also done in sensory labs. "The perception of acid changes with the alcohol level, and the aroma profile gets transformed by the concentration of alcohol," explains Jordan. He points to a recent study by researchers at the Yale School of Medicine, which found the brain devotes more attention to aroma and flavor with low alcohol wines.

So how are BFY wines made? Decisions can start in the vineyard with an eye on when the grapes are picked (the riper the fruit, the more sugar, meaning more potential alcohol). Most of the best examples we've tasted come from brands with estate vineyards, giving them more control over how the grapes are grown and harvested.

But there are also technologies to help get the wines to lower alcohol and calories. Randy Ullom, the head winemaker at Kendall Jackson wines, makes a BFY Chardonnay, called Avant Lower Calorie. He selects from estate vineyards in Mendocino, Sonoma, Monterey and Santa Barbara for an assortment of flavors.

"We picked one portion early, so we had higher acid levels, lower sugar and some fruit tones," explained Ullom. "The early pick gives us that sort of leanness and lower alcohol, and then we have the later pick that's full-on mature flavors." The wines are barrel fermented and then blended. Ullom's team also uses spinning cone technology—a type of distillation process—to remove alcohol from the wine.

Heidi Scheid and Jeff O'Neill ]
Heidi Scheid, left, and Jeff O'Neill have both brought new "Better For You" wine brands to the market for their companies. (Jonathan Smith)

Sunny with a Chance of Flowers is made from estate vineyards in Monterey. Grapes are picked at full ripeness. They ferment the wines to dry, leaving no residual sugar. They also use a two-step reverse osmosis process—a type of filtration—to remove alcohol.

With no official rules, the BFY category can be confusing. The labels on Mind and Body Wines from California state the wines contain 0 grams of fat. All wine is fat-free. The labels on Lifevine wines sport grapevines in yoga poses and claim to be Keto-friendly, but the 2019 Cabernet Sauvignon was listed at 14.8 percent alcohol. The marketing material explains that the wines have extended hangtime and maceration, as a way to get "25 percent more antioxidants" from the grape skins. They are also the only Certified Pesticide Free wine in the U.S., as certified by the third-party Clean Label Project. "Lifevine wines deserve a place in the consumer's shopping cart if they are interested in a holistic, wellness approach to their consumption habits," their promotional materials read.

Adjacent to the Better for You category is the wine seltzer category, which is also growing. Jeff O'Neill of O'Neill Vintners and Distillers predicts it's the next product to watch. "We need to create entries for people into our industry. And honestly, I don't think we have done a great job at that. I think we should have been thinking about lower alcohol long ago," he says.

He points to his company's Line 39 Spritzers in single-serving, twist-off aluminum bottles as competition among BFY wine lovers—they have 100 calories, 5 percent ABV and three ingredients: wine, sparkling water and natural flavors, such as lemon or cherry.

Most of the BFY wines come in traditional 750ml bottles, but some companies are looking at different packaging. Gallo has just signed a distribution agreement with Bev, a company that makes wines in 250ml cans.

Bev founder Alix Peabody created a low-sugar BFY wine in part because she has insulin resistance. "People ask me, ‘Why did you put it in a can?’" says Peabody. "The answer is pretty simple and straightforward: I had no money [for advertising]. If you pour it into a glass, no one knows what it is. But if someone is holding a can, you can spot it from across the room. If it's cute and approachable, it will be very identifiable."

With major wine companies investing in BFY and new brands popping up regularly, it's unclear if the category is just a fad or if it will result in more wines with calorie or ingredient listing on the labels. "Not all consumers are created equal in their desires," points out New Zealand's Jordan. He's right about that, but the BFY wines could help introduce a whole new group of consumers to a love of wine.

Is Better for You Better?

Twenty-five "better for you" wines were included in flights with other wines and tasted blind by Wine Spectator editors; the following 14 are recommended, scoring 85 points or higher on our 100-point scale.


KIM CRAWFORD

Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough Illuminate 2020

Score: 88 | $15

WS review: Lemongrass and verbena notes sing through, complimenting the tangy Key lime, lemon curd and ruby grapefruit flavors on a fresh frame, showing restraint on the finish. Drink now. 75,000 cases made.—MaryAnn Worobeic


KIM CRAWFORD

Rosé New Zealand Illuminate 2020

Score: 87 | $15

WS review: Strawberry-rhubarb flavors are juicy and intense on a crisp, refreshing frame, with hints of herb and orange zest. Drink now. 75,000 cases made.—M.W.


GIESEN

Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough Pure Light 2019

Score: 87 | $13

WS review: This white is bursting with grapefruit and pomelo notes on a light, crisp frame, showing a touch of lemon zest. Drink now. 1,000 cases imported. —M.W.


MIND & BODY

Pinot Grigio California 2019

Score: 87 | $13

WS review: Fresh and juicy, in an easy-drinking style, with tangy lemon curd and peach flavors on a supple frame, showing a touch of pineapple. Drink now.—M.W.


KENDALL-JACKSON

Chardonnay California Avant Lower Calorie 2020

Score: 86 | $17

WS review: Soft and creamy, with an appealing touch of butterscotch pudding to compliment the peach and citrus flavors, which are smooth and juicy on the finish. Drink now. 10,000 cases made.—M.W.


MIND & BODY

California Rosé 2019

Score: 86 | $13

WS review: Blood orange, strawberry and melon flavors are both candied and tangy on a smooth and appealing frame, with hints of spice on the finish. Drink now.—M.W.


SUNNY WITH A CHANCE OF FLOWERS

Pinot Noir Monterey 2019

Score: 86 | $17

WS review: Tangy strawberry and cranberry flavors are light and fresh on a delicate frame, with green tea, spice and forest floor notes on the finish. Drink now. 15,000 cases made.—M.W.


SUNNY WITH A CHANCE OF FLOWERS

Sauvignon Blanc Monterey 2019

Score: 86 | $17

WS review: An easy-drinking style, with ripe melon, nectarine and fresh crunchy yellow apple flavors that are appealing in their focus, on a soft and supple frame. Drink now. 15,000 cases made.—M.W.


BEV

Pinot Noir California NV

Score: 85 | $15

WS review: Compact but appealing, with strawberry-rhubarb and cranberry flavors that are light and fresh, showing herb, green tea and earth notes. Drink now.—M.W.


BEV

Sauvignon Blanc California NV

Score: 85 | $15

WS review: Lime and grapefruit flavors show an appealing fresh note on a slightly fizzy, refreshing frame, with plenty of focus. Drink now.—M.W.


BEV

White Sparkling California NV

Score: 85 | $17

WS review: Light and juicy, with restrained fresh ginger, pear and citrus flavors that show a hint of toast on the finish. Drink now.—M.W.


FITVINE

Cabernet Sauvignon California 2018

Score: 85 | $15

WS review: Appealing plum, cassis and blackberry flavors are ripe and plump, with dense tannins and notes of tobacco, spice and black tea. Drink now.—M.W.


FITVINE

Sauvignon Blanc California 2019

Score: 85 | $15

WS review: Light and soft, with yellow apple, peach and lemon curd flavors that are supple and appealing. Drink now.—M.W.


GIESEN

Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough Pure Light 2020

Score: 85 | $13

WS review: Grapefruit, lemon and pear flavors are juicy, fresh and intense, but on a light, airy frame. Drink now. 2,000 cases imported.—M.W.


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