Skinny drinking.

I’m often asked about calories in wine and what wine to choose to keep the calories low. Calorie content is usually the last thing on my mind when I’m choosing a wine. If you are drinking moderately, it’s more likely to be what you are eating than what you are drinking that is going to pile on the calories. But yes, there are calories in wine as in all alcoholic drinks.

The Drinking Woman’s Diet.


In The Drinking Woman’s Diet I explain the two sources of calories in wine: alcohol and sugar. Alcohol is fermented sugar and pure alcohol has a higher number of calories per gram than sugar, (seven calories as compared to four), almost as many as pure fat.  A 175 ml glass of wine with 13 per cent ABV (alcohol by volume) is about 160 calories. The higher the alcohol the higher the calories.

Most white wines tend to fall between 12 per cent and 14 per cent alcohol, while reds are between 13 per cent and 14.5 per cent. Read the label. They vary enormously—from about 10 per cent for a German Riesling to over 15 per cent for a Napa Cabernet or Australian Shiraz, among many others.

All booze for sale must legally mention the alcohol level on the label, but legislation varies from country to country. In the United Kingdom, alcoholic beverages are measured in ABV (alcohol by volume) as a percentage. Thus, 10 per cent ABV (you may see “10% vol.” or “10°”) means that there are ten volumetric units of pure ethanol in one hundred equal units of the drink.

In general wines from cooler climates, northern hemisphere and higher altitudes tend to have less alcohol than wines from warmer climes – the riper the berries the higher the sugar, most of which is converted to alcohol.

In the United States, labelling is different. The term “proof” is often used. Proof is about twice the ABV, so 10 per cent ABV equals about 20 proof. Likewise, 100 proof does not mean pure alcohol but 50 per cent ABV. It’s still a pretty strong drink.

How accurate are the figures quoted on the label? EU regulations permit a tolerance of plus or minus 0.5 per cent; looser US regulations allow a tolerance of plus or minus 1.5 per cent of alcohol for wines under 14 per cent alcohol, and plus or minus 1 per cent for wines over 14 per cent. A US wine label of 13.5 per cent could contain 15 per cent alcohol.

You might think that an extra degree or two of alcohol on the wine label would not make that much difference but it can. A 13 per cent and a 15 per cent alcohol by volume might not sound very different, but the effect on BAC (Blood alcohol level) is. While 2 per cent sounds small, it is about a 20 per cent jump in alcohol level, and blood alcohol levels can rise up 33 per cent to 43 per cent, depending on gender, on such a seemingly small difference. It’s not only calories that are affected!

There are plenty of sources to find out how calorie packed your favourite tipple is. There’s an online calorie counter at and at the NHS site. This is not the full story as it is not only alcohol that provides calories, there is also sugar in many wines.

As mentioned above most sugar is fermented into alcohol. Residual sugar is what is left after fermentation so the alcohol content and the calories in alcohol are not the complete story. Alcohol will be mentioned on the label but sugar levels rarely are. The dryer the wine the less sugar. In many dry whites all the sugar is fermented into alcohol. In Bordeaux, Bordeaux Blanc sec has less residual than red, rose and Clairet which have a maximum of 3 g of residual sugar per litre.

A White Bordeaux Supérieur (a rare beast but it does exist) can have up to 17 g of sugar per litre; a Moelleux wine is between 6 and 45 g of residual sugar and a Liquoreux a minimum of 45g of residual sugar with some Sauternes and Barsac reaching 130g.  One, but not the only, reason they are so very delicious.

I hope some delicious sparkling wines and Champagne will be part of your New year’s celebrations. With Champagne it is a lot easier to understand the sugar levels. Champagne is fermented in two stages. The first alcoholic fermentation creates the still wine, and the secondary fermentation in the bottle to create the sparkle, or the ‘Prise de mousse’. Depending upon the champagne style, and the producer, the wine will remain in the bottle on the lees (yeast molecules) for a different amount of time. Eventually the wine will be disgorged, the sediment that will have collected in the neck of the bottle removed and replaced with a small amount of ‘dosage’ wine or ‘liqueur d’expédition’.

Dosage is a mixture of Champagne, (either the same as in the bottle or a reserve wine for added complexity) with added sugar to balance the traditionally high acidity. It is this amount of sugar that determines the sweetness of the final wine.

Champagne bottles are legally obliged to state the level of sugar or dosage. The most popular style of Champagne today is brut (6 to 12 grams of sugar per litre see below), evolving from a historic preference for doux and demi-sec. Misleadingly Extra dry is sweeter than brut, go figure.

  • Doux more than 50 grams of sugar per litre
  • Demi-sec 32-50 grams of sugar per litre
  • Sec 17-32 grams of sugar per litre
  • Extra dry 12-17 grams of sugar per litre
  • Brut less than 12 grams of sugar per litre
  • Extra brut 0-6 grams of sugar per litre.
  • Brut nature“, “pas dosé” or “dosage zéro” At or below 3 grams

These low or zero dosage Champagnes are fashionable in certain circles, familiarly known as skinny champagne, for obvious reasons. I tasted my first one many years ago at a fashion show in Paris. You can see the synergy.

They remain a niche market; less than 2% of production is zero dosage compared to brut at over 70%. dosage is not an easy thing to achieve. Champagne wines are picked to keep the fresh acidity but it can make them tart and a liqueur de dosage can round this off – it’s a very skilled job to get the liqueur blend right.

Production of zéro dosage is growing, slowly, more due to climate concerns rather than a trend for skinny drinking but also due to Champagne being matched more with food.

Ripeness levels are higher than ever and harvest dates are getting earlier. Careful picking, fermenting and aging means that dosage may not be needed to round out excess acidity. On the contrary Champagne producers are now looking at ways to preserve freshness rather than mask excess acidity. I touched on these challenges in a post following my visit to A R Lenoble Champagne this spring.

There’s nothing new in these wines though. In 1889, Mathilde Emilie Perrier created a zero-dosage ‘Grand Vin sans Sucre’ at Laurent-Perrier, very daring at the time when most Champagne was Demi-Sec. It was the ancestor of the Laurent Perrier Ultra Brut, which was released in the early 1980s. (See that fashion show above). Only made from vintages with the highest level of maturity to ensure the wine is not too tart and aged after the second fermentation for at least four years before being disgorged, with no dosage (sugar) at all.

Family owned AR Lenoble was an early adopter of limiting dosage, not to count calories but to allow a more precise expression of their terroir. Created in 1998, AR Lenoble Brut Nature Dosage Zéro is excellent but their Bruts never exceed 5 to 6 g/l thanks to their the use of reserve wines, now aged in magnums and sealed with natural cork to preserve freshness and develop aromatic richness. Who needs sugar?

A R Le Noble Brut Nature

Pol Roger created their zero dosage wine called Pure in 2008; again the objective is to let the terroir shine. Blended from all three classic champagne varieties and aged on the lees to add complexity and remove the need for that extra sugar.

Nick Baker of The Finest Bubble, an emergency Champagne service (they have a brilliant delivery service in 2 hours in London and next day in other parts of the UK) explained that there is quite a lot of extra brut Champagne. ‘People don’t realise for example that DP is in fact extra brut so is Moet 2009 and quite a few others.’

He agrees the market for zero dosage is quite small, with even the market leaders Roederer and Laurent-Perrier only selling small volumes. Many grower champagnes are zero dosage (see A R Lenoble above), but he reiterates that you may need food with them to balance the acidity.

Champagne with food works for me

It’s not only the Champagne houses that make Zero dosage. If you want to drink British over the holidays, the Cubitt Blanc de Blancs 2013 from Denbies Wine Estate in Surrey has less than 1g of residual sugar.

So to answer that question about skinny drinking, spirits have a higher alcohol content, so more calories and often come as cocktails served with sugary mixers so you’re getting a double hit. If you want spirits, avoid mixing with anything with high fructose corn syrup (Red Bull, cola, and other sodas). Artificially sweetened mixers aren’t much better, they are hard for your body to process tricking your body into thinking it’s consuming sugar. Stick to mixers such as water with your whisky and fresh fruit juice with no added sugar, Bloody Mary perhaps? A white wine spritzer (mineral water not lemonade) is another option.

For wine my advice would be to choose a wine you love and savour it. After all it’s about how much and how often you drink as well as what you drink. Less but better.

Seeing as we were in the Southern Hemisphere, Vin de Constance, Klein Constantia was our sweet Christmas tipple this year.

The thought of Christmas lunch without a glass of Sweet wine would be too sad for me – but I’ll start the New Year’s celebrations with a low dosage champagne – to keep a good average.

Happy New Year.










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