Low-carb wines, sure, but how do they taste?

Even among the carb-conscious, wine has not been a major enemy.

After all, any dry wine contains perhaps 3 or 4 grams of carbs per five-ounce glass. That’s a small fraction of the 50 or 60 grams recommended during an ongoing Atkins-like routine, and certainly less than a regular beer or most mixed drinks.

So when the winemakers at Brown-Forman Wines recently unveiled its two reduced-carb labels, wine lovers and winemakers alike were puzzled. Would it still taste like wine?  Had they resorted to some sort of nefarious chemistry?  Perhaps they picked underripe or undersugared fruit?

“That’s not where we started the process,” says Jill Jepson, associate winemaker and brand director for the new One.6 chardonnay and One.9 merlot, each named for the exact degree of their low-carbitude.

Last summer, Jepson says, Brown-Forman analyzed various lots of grapes from their growers throughout California and chose the ones with the fewest carbs from 2002 merlot juice and 2003 chardonnay fruit. 

Then they dry-fermented the wine to remove every bit of residual sugar. (Most wine has just a touch left over.)  And they blended it to achieve what Jepson describes as a “really interesting, fruity style.”

None of this is shocking.  Blending winemakers seek out specific properties in their batches all the time. And though Brown-Forman is the only winemaker with a low-carb line, other large winemakers have inaugurated modest reduced-carb strategies.

Diageo Chateau and Estate Wines, which controls the Beaulieu and Sterling Vineyards labels, crafted hanging “neckers” for some of their wines -– promo tags around the bottle neck that list carb counts and other nutritional details.

But the company opted not to change its labels and isn’t tinkering inside the bottle. “We haven’t had to reformulate,” says Diageo’s Jon Pageler.

Some high-end vintners find Brown-Forman’s effort downright distasteful, taking offense that a premium product like wine would be lumped with low-carb targets like spaghetti and snack bars. One shot me a withering glance when I even mentioned the concept.

Jepson sees any backlash as simply sour grapes in an often self-obsessed business: “The wine industry has traditionally made wine for ourselves and not for the consumer.”

How carbs countSince consumers will ultimately buy on taste, we tried out the new wines. But first let’s consider wine’s place in the carbohydrate universe.

The USDA’s nutrition database lists 1.18 g of carbs in a 5-ounce serving of white wine, and 2.51 g in five ounces of red. Most in the industry find those numbers too low, and the methods for counting carbs have created a bit of controversy in the industry, not unlike the gap between Food and Drug Administration guidelines and the “net carbs” touted by some food companies. For example, do you count tannins and organic acids, which have no nutritional impact?

The federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau is preparing specific guidelines which may be available as soon as this week; indications are that it favors the FDA-type approach.

Actually, any drink with fewer than 7 grams can now be called “low carb,” according to Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade rules. Wines aren’t required to list carbs, but those that do must list all standard nutrition label data, including calories.

Brown-Forman did not disclose carbs for one of its standard bottlings, the 2002 Fetzer Eagle Peak merlot. Sutter Home, which also launched a campaign to market wine as low-carb, lists carb counts for all its varietals. Its merlot has 4.1g per glass. Diageo’s Beaulieu Vineyards BV Coastal Estates merlot has 3.5g of carbs per glass.

Spirits makers don’t want to be left out either.  They have noted that basic distilled spirits – unflavored vodka, gin and tequila, for instance – have no carbs.  Of course, drink mixers like soda have carbs, and all alcohol comes with other weight-control issues (the body processes alcohol before any nutrients, and then there’s those late-night cheeseburger binges) but a straight shot of vodka, or a scotch and soda, won’t technically impact your carb count.

Back to the wines: With a $5 million marketing campaign, Brown-Forman put serious cash behind One.6 and One.9, which are currently in a 300,000-case release and available at major retailers like Wal-Mart and Target for about $10.

Since these wines are meant to appeal to consumers shopping in that price range, we gathered a couple panels of nonprofessional wine drinkers to see how they stood up in blind tasting.

Room for improvementResults were fair at best. The biggest message from our tasters? There’s room for improvement among inexpensive takes on these popular varietals – low-carb or not. 

The One.6 chardonnay was paired against two similarly priced wines, a Morro Bay chardonnay from California’s Central Coast and a Waterbrook chardonnay from Washington.

One.6 generally ranked second or last among our newsroom tasters. They found “almost no nose,” and “no fruit.” Some said it tasted “bland” and “mild”; a couple found it “sweet” and “more like pop than wine.”

Most found the Morro Bay “tangy” and “sharp”; a few thought it was “weak.” The Waterbrook drew mixed reviews – some found it “grassy.” Others detected “cat pee.” Even the biggest chardonnay fan in the group said she was “not crazy about any of them.”

The merlot garnered slightly more enthusiasm when we tasted it at a recent dinner party. We compared One.9 against two other California bottlings around $10, including Brown-Forman’s own Fetzer. One.9 ranked a solid second; one person made it their top pick. 

Panelists found it “light” to “medium bodied” and “acidic,” picking up “cherry/cranberry” or “blackberry.” “Kind of stagnant, but I could finish this,” one said.  Its presumably carbier brother, the Fetzer, got slightly better marks: “Fruitiest of batch,” “dry and strong.”

Tasters found the third wine, a BV Coastal 2001, “listless” and “slightly bitter.”  The entire panel felt all three were palatable, with basic fruit; none were standouts. No one planned to buy any.

The bottom line: No dry wine should cause you much carb concern. If you enjoy value-brand California chardonnay and merlot, and you’re concerned about an extra 1 to 2 grams of carbs per glass, you might enjoy the low-carb .

But if you’re that worried about carbs, you may want to skip the vino. Stick to water.