Lower-alcohol wines

Dr John Forrest

Lighten up

New Zealand is making palatable wines at 9.5% abv. Maybe it’s on to something, writes Graham Holter


The country that normalised screwcaps on wine bottles believes it’s on the verge of a breakthrough that could be just as seismic.

New Zealand winemakers, aided by some government cash, are finding new ways of taking alcohol levels below 10% without compromising flavour, aroma or mouthfeel. There is a fourth consideration too: typicity. If you’re selling 9% abv Marlborough Sauvignon, consumers expect it to taste like Marlborough Sauvignon, not generic white wine.

The New Zealand Lighter Wines Initiative involves 18 producers who all collaborate in a $17m research and development programme. But individual wineries are free to develop their own technologies without necessarily sharing their secrets.

Dr John Forrest, for example, estimates there are “14 subtle things we can do” in his Forrest Estate winery to achieve a decrease in alcohol by four or five percentage points. He won’t reveal what these are but stresses it’s “nothing daft and nothing illegal”. Most of the processes, he says, amount to “tweaks during the winemaking”. About a third involve additives of some kind.

Forrest has been on a long mission to make authentic-tasting lighter wines. His initial attempts were focused on early harvesting and dealcoholisation. The wines turned out thin and insipid. “Two years wasted, really,” is his damning verdict on his own efforts.

Then in 2017 he started experimenting with selective leaf removal in the vineyards to slow down the vines’ ability to produce sugar. The technique proved to be not only successful, but inexpensive. “It costs not one cent more than conventional viticulture,” Forrest says.

A selection of wines from various producers involved in the initiative was recently presented in London, to a broadly favourable response. Some of the Marlborough Sauvignons tasted noticeably light, without losing typicity, though others were surprisingly full flavoured.

The Pinot Gris and rosé flights were more of a mixed bag. Although quality was generally good, a couple of wines had the kind of incongruous background flavours that suggested some unconventional manipulation in the winery.

The two reds on show, Forrest’s The Doctors Pinot Noir 2017 and 2018, were perhaps the highlights of the day. In a way the selling point here is not the alcohol content per se, but the fact that the wine is made in a style that many Pinot fans prefer to the hot, overbearing offerings that the New World is sometimes guilty of producing.

Wine Intelligence research has found that 41% of premium wine drinkers in the UK would be keen to buy lighter wine if it was available. One third of these consumers report moderating their alcohol intake.

It would be a brave or reckless producer to base their marketing around health and wellbeing, especially for a product that’s significantly more alcoholic than Special Brew. And talk of “the ability to have a second glass before driving”, which was overheard at the London event, is another clear no-no. It raises questions about how lighter wines should be promoted and packaged, and where exactly they should be displayed: in their own section of the store, or alongside their traditional-strength cousins?

Already lighter styles account for 7% of Sauvignon Blanc sales in New Zealand, compared to just 0.5% in the UK. That’s a £55m sales gap that Forrest is convinced can be breached.

But why settle for 9% abv when you could perhaps achieve 0%? It’s a question that leaves the mild-mannered Forrest slightly rattled. “I find it almost offensive that people keep banging on about this,” he says.

We should, he insists, be celebrating “a bloody good effort by New Zealand” in achieving such impressive results with an already significant reduction in alcohol. As a scientist, he has an academic curiosity about the possibility of a completely non-alcoholic and authentic-tasting wine, but nobody should underestimate the challenges that poses, which at present seem insurmountable.

Meanwhile, the work continues into perfecting the current technology. There is no silver bullet, Forrest says. We are dealing with live science and the work is continuing on many fronts.

“Let’s celebrate great wine with a 30% to 40% reduction in alcohol,” he urges. “It’s a hell of an achievement and it opens up so many more opportunities for drinking. This is 14 years of blood, sweat and tears for me personally.”

January 2020

Vine Whisperer SB