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

Thu Mar 26, 2015 7:25pm EDT
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By Naomi Tajitsu

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.

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.   Continued...

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