Does (diet-branded) Cense wine make sense?

The marketing story: Cense Marlborough sauvignon blanc is the first Weight Watchers-branded wine, made by Truett-Hurst, a holding company for California-based wine production and branding operations. Cense has 85 calories per 5 oz glass,* equating to 3 Weight Watchers’ “points.” The partners expect to add other wines to the brand line-up including (surprise, surprise) a rosé.

The numbers: Cense is a reduced alcohol wine. The brand also hooks its diet-friendly message on claims about no added sugar, but dry table wines essentially never contain added sugar, and the small fraction of residual sugar in the vast majority of table wines makes an insignificant calorie contribution. “Lower calorie” is just alternate marketing for “lower alcohol.”

Since ethanol and sugar are the only signficant sources of calories in wine, estimating the calories in your glass of non diet-branded wine is simple.** (Color only matters in that whites are often, though not always lower in alcohol than reds.)

Calories in a 5 oz glass = (alcohol on the label as a decimal)(785) + (sugar in grams/liter) X (.568)

A 12% dry wine with .5% residual sugar clocks in at just about 100 calories per 5 oz. Make that 13.5% – the starting point for sauv blancs from Kim Crawford up to Cloudy Bay and Greywacke – and the same 5 oz glass comes up to 110 calories. By drinking Cense, you save about 35 calories per glass, the equivalent of about 5 almonds or one and a half medium-sized carrots.

The analysis: Does Cense make sense?

Quantity versus quality – Some diet advice will recommend cutting alcohol out entirely because wine and other such things are “empty calories,” but that phrase only makes sense if nutrition is the only reason for putting things in your mouth. Good wine isn’t empty at all; it’s satisfying and even emotionally and spiritually nourishing. But not all wine is good wine, and drinking something that doesn’t give you what you were looking for may leave you still wanting something else and ultimately just consuming more. Maybe you, like the smiling women clinking glasses at the top of articles like this, find light-weight Marlborough sauvignon blanc satisfying. Maybe you don’t. The arguments that apply to “diet” versions of other foods apply here, too. People may feel free to consume more of the lower-calorie product so that their total calorie intake doesn’t decrease; people may also consume more because the lower-calorie product isn’t as satisfying.

Difference versus significant difference – Is saving 35 calories per glass meaningful? If you’re drinking two or three glasses of inoffensive crisp white wine a day, those calories will really add up. If you stick to one glass, maybe not.

Cense versus other lower-alcohol sauv blancs: Many larger Marlborough sauvignon blanc producers market a lower alcohol version of their signature wine. Brancott Estate has their “Flight” line, Spy Valley makes “Easy Tiger.” Doctors, Peter Yealands, and Kim Crawford all make lighter versions, the last explicitly marketed at the weight loss crowd. I’ve tried most of these and they’re all fine. Just fine. You can achieve a similar effect by taking a glass of ordinary Marlborough sauv blanc and adding some water. Diluting the stuff is unlikely to change how you feel about this particular wine style.

Cense will make some people’s lives easier because they know how many calories are in a serving. Calorie estimates on all wine labels could give people who pay attention to such things more confidence, let them feel freer about drinking wine, and possibly encourage all of us to remember that wine is a food that we need to account for in our daily intake as such. Adding calories estimates to labels needn’t be especially onerous, since wineries already need to have alcohol content estimated in advance for labelling and tax regulation, and the print could be as discrete as ABVs currently are. Wine is food. Let’s label it as such.

The fine print/More on the technology: Attempts to make genuinely enjoyable lower alcohol or reduced alcohol wines are legion. In the first camp, new research studies appear every month featuring some new combination of yeasts that might be just that bit less efficient at converting sugar into ethanol so that the same good, ripe juice can be easily converted into a wine that’s naturally a point or so lower in alcohol. Researchers on the viticulture side are busy with strategies to grow grapes that achieve desirably ripe flavors with less sugar so that ordinary fermentation practices yield lower alcohol wines from the get-go. These techniques haven’t been worked out well enough to be considered widespread solutions to “the alcohol problem.” In the meantime, several “dealcing” technologies for alcohol reduction are in widespread use. (For more information on those, see this old Palate Press article.)

From what a winemaker behind Cense tells Lexi Williams at Wine Spectator, reverse osmosis membrane filtration is used to remove most of the alcohol from about 10% of the wine. That fraction is then blended back into the whole to reduce the total’s alcohol concentration from something in the neighborhood of 11-12% to about 9.6%. Reverse osmosis for alcohol reduction uses the same sort of diffusion principle that your kidneys use to salvage water from your body’s liquid waste. A running stream of wine is separated from a running stream of water by a semi-permeable membrane with holes so small that only ethanol, water, and other very tiny molecules can pass through. Molecules in solutions are always moving so, all else being equal, they’ll even themselves out across a space – that is, they’ll reach equilibrium. As a result, ethanol will move out of the wine and into the water (moving and constantly refreshed so that ethanol doesn’t build up in it) until little ethanol is left to move. A little water will also move into the wine.

Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc is amongst the easiest wines – probably the easiest mainstream style – to make lower in alcohol. Imbibers looking for a refreshing, easy-going, sociable sipper with less alcohol and/or fewer calories are probably not looking for body, depth, or complexity. Many Marlborough sauvignon blancs are so maxed out with very distinctive, very powerful aroma compounds that reducing the wine’s overall body and even diluting its flavor can still produce a pleasant-enough drink with the recognizable sauv blanc flavor that people who buy this kind of wine expect. Since one of Marlborough sauv blanc’s major selling points is consistency – you know what to expect when you pick up a bottle – that’s a major selling point. Try scalping alcohol and some flavor from most wines – one of the fine pinot noirs from that region, for example – and you’re likely to end up with something acrid, thin, and more or less undrinkable.

* 5 oz is just under 150 mL and a pretty generous pour, though much less than what many people will drink at home if they’re in the habit of filling their glasses up. This Consumer Reports article includes an excellent graphic demonstrating what 5 oz looks like in different kinds of wine glasses.

**Here’s the unsimplified equation: Calories in a glass = (alcohol on the label as a decimal, e.g. .12 for 12%”) X (serving size in mL) X (0.79 grams alcohol/mL) X (7 calories/gram of alcohol) + (sugar in grams/liter) X (0.001 L/mL) X (serving size in mL) X (4 calories/gram of sugar)

4 thoughts on “Does (diet-branded) Cense wine make sense?

  1. Hi Matt,
    Thank you for looking into Cense wines. I do want to point out the significant reason that Weight Watchers endorsed this wine and not others was the quality of the wine – the taste and aromatics.

    • Thanks for the comment, Lee. I actually wasn’t trying to comment on wine quality; Cense isn’t available in the UK where I live and I haven’t tried it yet. I think that what you’ve said is a very difficult judgment to make without having done (or having access to) some serious comparative tasting of Cense versus other low-alcohol sauv blancs, and without knowing more about Weight Watchers’ decision process and business plans. Still, while I know that I don’t look to Weight Watchers for their knowledge about wine quality and style or for being taste-makers for food and wine more broadly, I can’t rule out that some people do and that wine quality was a reason for creating a new brand.

      Thanks, Erika

      • Hi Erika,
        thanks for the response. just wanting to make that point because I’m not sure we make that point emphatically enough in our communications! Am very thankful for the time you took and a very interesting take on the concept.
        Lee

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