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Ditch ‘low and no’ for ‘lighter’ wine to engage wellness generation, say Kiwi winemakers

Published:  12 November, 2019

A collaboration of New Zealand producers dedicated to producing naturally lower alcohol wines is urging the trade to step beyond the low/no bunker mentality and “celebrate great wines with 30-40% less alcohol”.

Winemaker John Forrest, who instigated and now fronts the NZ Lighter Wines Research Programme, delivered this message at a seminar in London that explored the progress made in delivering lighter in alcohol wines that nonetheless remain expressive of variety and terroir.

The project, now in its thirteenth year, is rooted in delivering lighter alcohol wines through selective leaf removal to slow the vine’s ability to make sugar while delivering otherwise full maturity, along with other ‘natural’ vineyard-based and winemaking techniques, such as yeast that delivers half a degree less alcohol.

Forrest said the emphasis is on delivering the mouthfeel and texture that standard alcohol levels would deliver, while keeping alcohol levels at single digit levels, below 10% abv.

Some 18 producers are now involved in the research and development project, which has been backed by NZ$17m investment since the 2013 vintage, with funding from government, the New Zealand Winegrowers Association and the producers themselves, with the wines carrying a NZ Lighter logo on the label. 

“What we want to be in 2025 is the dominant player, not just in the UK, but in the global market place, with wines of significantly less alcohol and less calories,” said Forrest.

He highlighted research that suggested 41% of UK premium consumers are ‘likely to purchase lighter wines’, but are typically put off by the lack of flavour and character of lower and no alcohol ‘Frankenwines’ that have undergone Physicochemical de-alcoholisation.

Most western markets report similar interest, with educated female consumers at the forefront of engagement in New Zealand where this category is fast growing, drinking examples from such estates as Brancott Estate, Stoneleigh, Villa Maria, Yealands, Spy Valley and Forrest’s own The Doctors’ label.

Moreover, and given that the programme is centred on a commercial imperative of delivering wines that are based on production techniques at no extra cost, the New Zealand experience has revealed that a growing number of consumers are basing their purchasing on "wellness before price", meaning producers “don’t have to trash their prices”.

“There has been an unrealistic push to attach zero to low, it shows lack of [understanding of] science by society… to think you can go from 14% alcohol to zero, taking out the part that we love in wine, is nonsense,” said Forrest.

The next step in the UK, he added, must necessarily be rooted in marketing, understanding the decisions people are taking about wine purchase and what they want, and responding to this with styles that fit modern, healthy lifestyles.

The project is still a work in progress, but a 9% abv The Doctors’ Pinot Noir 2018, which rounded off a lighter alcohol wine tasting at the seminar, showed how far it has come in delivering full character and texture in reds too, with “subtle adjustments in techniques” now allowing for the application of this R&D to “any variety”.

Forrest also stressed that as global warming gathers pace, delivering higher alcohol levels around the world, these same techniques could be used anywhere to help combat the immediate effects of a hotter climate.