It's in the grape: New Zealand vintners pioneer low-alcohol techniques

WELLINGTON (Reuters) - New Zealand’s cooler climate is giving its winemakers an edge as they seek to exploit growing global demand for lighter, premium wines, as rising temperatures push up the alcohol content of wines from rivals such as Australia and the United States.

Larry McKenna, chief winemaker and director at Escarpment, looks at grapes hanging from vines at the winery located near Martinborough village, east of the city of Wellington, March 6, 2015. REUTERS/Naomi Tajitsu

The 2015 vintage of the country’s flagship Sauvignon Blanc will be the first produced under a government-backed initiative to research and produce wines that dispel the image of low-alcohol, low-calorie wines as overly sweet, inferior tastes.

“There’s been a global awakening to the fact that there’s a limited quantity of premium lower alcohol white wines available and we’ve captured the first wave of that market,” said John Forrest, winemaker and owner of Forrest Wines based in Marlborough, the main producing region for New Zealand’s aromatic, fruity take on the Bordeaux grape.

Now in its seventh vintage, Forrest’s 9 percent Sauvignon Blanc comprises nearly half the label’s production and is shipped to high-end supermarket Waitrose in Britain, and Whole Foods in the United States.

Developing full-flavored wines below the typical 12-14 percent alcohol by volume (ABV) could position New Zealand winemakers as a producer of quality wines for a growing niche market, enabling the NZ$1.35 billion ($1.03 billion) industry to grow its share of the global wine trade.

A survey of wine drinkers in Europe and North America by research firm Wine Intelligence shows 39 percent of respondents were buyers of wines with an alcohol content below 10.5 percent last year, rising nearly 9 percent from 2013.

Nielsen data shows that in the United States, the world’s biggest wine consumer by volume, store sales of wines with an alcohol content below 12 percent were worth $2.7 billion in the past year, up 33 percent from 2011 and outpacing growth in higher alcohol categories.

But growing grapes for a lower alcohol wine is “extremely hard”, says Simon Hooker, general manager of research at trade body NZ Wine, which is running a $13 million Lifestyle Wine project, as it involves slowing the fruit’s sugar development, which affects the alcohol level, while mellowing its acidity before the grape is picked.

“There’s a point where the wine falls apart and just isn’t wine anymore,” he said. “There’s a sweet spot somewhere between the flavor and the alcohol content ... The program’s target is to hit that sweet spot.”

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Low-alcohol wines have been marketed for years, often as a reduced-calorie option whose alcohol content has been lowered by filtration or reverse osmosis techniques. But critics say they often lack depth and complexity.

New Zealand winemakers are experimenting with newer viticulture techniques including strategically trimming vines to slow sugar development in grapes, as well as fermentation methods designed to “fill out” the flavor in the vat.

“The key point of difference between our wines and other lower alcohol wines is that we make our wine in the field,” said Ollie Davidson, senior vice-president of viticulture at Constellation Brands, which last year introduced lower alcohol versions of its Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris.

While New Zealand’s relatively cooler climate has given it a head start in developing new grape growing techniques for lower alcohol wines, it has not been immune to the hotter summers affecting other wine growing countries.

Winemaker Forrest says the methods he is using in Marlborough could be applied worldwide.

“Being able to reduce the amount of sugar the plant is producing to put into the grape has tremendous commercial potential for all white wine varietals, particularly from global warming and hotter climates,” he said.

“This year, in a drought, I’ve applied that technique to other white varietals ... and hence I won’t be making a 14 percent Chardonnay, I’ll be able to keep it at 13 percent.”

New Zealand winemakers say that Sauvignon Blanc’s broad flavor profile makes it an ideal lower alcohol candidate. They see an export market in the United States, challenging popular low-alcohol choices such as Moscato and Prosecco from Italy.

But some growers of other varieties such as Pinot Noir, a notoriously fickle grape, are less enthused, worrying that such techniques, if applied to red wines that use skins and pips to develop their characteristic tannins, would compromise flavor.

“The Pinot Noirs that people are interested in are the ones that are a reflection of where they were grown,” said Larry McKenna, chief winemaker and director at Escarpment in the Martinborough region who specializes in the elegant red.

“Maybe some people want 10 percent wines because they want lower alcohol and they want to be healthy, but those wines aren’t going to create an international position, they’re not going to get us a write-up in Decanter magazine.”

Editing by Lincoln Feast and Alex Richardson