New Zealand's big gamble

Marlborough, New Zealand
Marlborough, New Zealand
Are low-alcohol wines renting space on the fringes of the wine world, encouraging responsible drinking but ultimately far from mainstream? Or, are they a full-blown, twenty-first-century wine-drinking phenomenon?

New Zealand winemakers are banking an impressively large amount of R&D money – NZ$16.9m ($12.66m) – on the latter. They want to make their country the world’s number one “go-to” producer of low-alcohol/low- calorie wines. And not wines made low-cal by sucking out the alcohol while being wired to machines. They want the highest natural quality possible without reverting to new technology. “This will give New Zealand a point of difference and make it the go-to country for high quality, lower-alcohol and lower- calorie wines,” says Philip Gregan, CEO of the country’s leading wine industry body, New Zealand Winegrowers.

Industry involvement

The New Zealand government has contributed NZ$8.13m to the seven-year low-alcohol research and development project, with another NZ$8.84m promised from both New Zealand Winegrowers and 16 wine companies, including some of the country’s biggest, such as Constellation and Villa Maria, as well as smaller producerslike Allan Scott Wines and Mt Difficulty. 

These investment winemakers are looking to make a range of wines below 10% in alcohol. Nine per cent or 9.5% is pitched as an early target. It’s not everyone’s idea of low alcohol given some producers of German Riesling and Australian Semillon regularly achieve that simply through picking grapes early.

But no matter how low the alcohol ultimately goes, there’s a catch. The calorie-conscious wines must also taste “premium” and delicious.

In a cool climate like New Zealand where ripeness in grapes is something that generally comes with high-ish sugar – and therefore alcohol – it will be a worthy challenge to Kiwi inventiveness. They even have a name for the type of wines they wish to produce – ‘lifestyle’ wines; just right for these health-and-figure-conscious times.

But it seems not every winemaker is happy with the arrival of a separatist low-alcohol movement. Fractures are appearing.

“I think the term ‘lifestyle wines’ is downright dumb,” says Greywacke winemaker and founder Kevin Judd, who worries about how the low-alcohol/low-calorie wines are to be marketed. “In fact, it really annoys me. It says the wrong things– that wines that are not lifestyle wines are not as good for your lifestyle. It is

Award-winning Martinborough winemaker Larry McKenna at Escarpment suggests the motivation behind the New Zealand government’s multi-million-dollar involvement is political correctness “gone mad”.

“Why not drink just a little less and enjoy full bodied wine made the way the grape intended?” he asks. The search for wines that express place, grape variety and the vintage, he fears, will be lost. “The wines which will be produced from this research will not speak of anything but low alcohol.”

Former Australia-based winemaker Dan Dineen, now at Maude Wines in Central Otago, adds: “We don’t want this to alienate normal wines. Hopefully, it just becomes a style rather than a splinter group.”

And the final word from Duncan McTavish, CEO at Man O’ War Vineyards on Waiheke Island: “I object to the $17m being spent. It is money spent on the fringes of winemaking.”

Checkered history

This is not the first time New Zealand winemakers have dabbled in low-alcohol wines. “They have been the next big thing twice in the past, back in the 1980s,” points out James Healy at Dog Point Vineyard, who adds he won’t be participating in the project. “This has no meaning to the wines or styles that interest me.”

The country has enjoyed something of an on-again, off-again relationship with alcohol since the early days of wine production. Prohibitionists were a powerful voice in the early 1900s and succeeded in banning liquor sales in 12 out of 76 general electorates in the North Island, leading to 484 hotels losing their licenses. By 1910 it was difficult to open a wine bar; women were banned from holding liquor licenses; opening hours were restricted and the employment of new barmaids was also, somewhat bizarrely, banned. 

The prohibitionist era had fizzled by the 1930s, but an active anti-alcohol movement is still said to make its presence felt today. “New Zealand has quite the wowser [prohibitionist] group,” says Healy.

It isn’t hard to see why the New Zealand government has embraced and encouraged the wine industry’s thrust into low alcohol wine production. Or why many winemakers don’t wish to openly criticise the motives behind the wine industry’s largest, most expensive research project ever undertaken. Leading winemaker Kevin Judd, for example, was keen to stress that he wasn’t against low-alcohol wines, merely their marketing as so-called ‘lifestyle’ wines. The big investment shows a responsible industry and government taking action to counter a serious social issue. It’s hard to fight the perception that some public good is going to be done.

“My view, for what it’s worth, is that there is a place for low alcohol wines,” says winemaker Tom Trolove at Framingham Wines. “I believe certain segments of the market are seeking this kind of product.”

At this early stage, exact project details remain sketchy. Some makers believe it will involve producing similar quality and style wines to those currently being made, but reducing the alcohol by 0.5% or more, leading to the implication that New Zealand wines are too high in alcohol and need to be adjusted. Others suggest there’s a bigger picture.

“It should not be taken that the proposed research indicates any implication that New Zealand thinks its wines are too high in alcohol,” says Nigel Greening of Central Otago biodynamic dynamo, Felton Road. “The research is not about how to trim New Zealand wines in general. This isn’t about learning how to make 13% Pinot Noir rather than 14% Pinot Noir.” Greening refers to the possible creation of a whole group of “complex premium wines” with “significantly” lower alcohol levels.  He makes it sound like New Zealand is on the cusp of something revolutionary. Or something that, at the very least, the world has been waiting for.

Except New Zealand may have to share the limelight with Germany’s Geisenheim Institute, which has also shown interest in researching low-alcohol wines, following concern that climate change will lead to unacceptably high levels of alcohol in coming years. 

Export possibilities

Is NZ$16.9m being spent on researching and developing low- alcohol wines aimed at the New Zealand market? No. It is the export wine market currently worth NZ$1.3bn to Kiwi wine producers that winemakers have their eyes on. The peak industry body, New Zealand Winegrowers, talks enthusiastically of serving a “rapidly growing” overseas taste for the wines.

But where? It is not in New Zealand’s number one wine export destination, Australia, where the low-alcohol/low-calorie wine category is still regarded as insignificant. Some Australian winemakers, like Ross Brown of Brown Brothers, openly wonder at their nearest neighbours’ multi-million-dollar plans. The wine drinker’s first priority, he says, is not low-alcohol wines but wines of quality and flavour.

“The fact that it is low alcohol is not a primary attraction,” he says. “We’ve got wines at 5% alcohol going out on to the market, but they aren’t marketed as low-alcohol. Low alcohol can be a bonus, particularly among women, but it’s not a priority [for drinkers]. ”

New Zealanders are looking to North America and, in particular, the UK, where England, Scotland and Northern Ireland have recently introduced bans on the sale of below-cost alcohol in order to reduce alcohol-related harm.

Producers sense a growing consumer appetite for lower-alcohol wines and are excited by the prospects for success, but they might be a little premature in their enthusiasm. In what it claimed was the first research of its kind, international market research company Wine Intelligence released a report in July 2013 detailing “consumer needs” in Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, the UK and the US. It found that 38% of drinkers – which it estimated translated to around 80m people - could be identified as low alcohol drinkers. The USA and Germany lead the way.

However, it appeared that cheaper prices for low-alcohol wines were the big attraction for drinkers, followed by perceived health benefits. Wine Intelligence research also showed that low-alcohol wines did not represent the lion’s share of a purchaser’s wine-buying habits, but were bought for occasions when drinkers needed to “stay in control” or had health concerns.

Importantly, for the New Zealand industry, the research report found just under half of wine drinkers did not embrace low-alcohol wines. “Poor quality and taste perceptions of the products are the main barriers for this group,” the report said. It also suggested that the tax system in Europe “distorted” the category by incentivising the production of extremely low-alcohol wines of 5.5% alcohol or below, leading to poor wines that often failed to meet the most modest expectations of drinkers. It concluded: “Lower- alcohol wines still have some way to go until they are recognised as mainstream products.”

The journey to fully delicious, premium low-alcohol/low-calorie wine production – and potential world domination – will take the New Zealanders back into the vineyard and winery.  They will look, no doubt, at the pioneering work of Dr John Forrest at Forrest Wines, a notable investor in the NZ$16.9m project, who concentrates heavily on the vineyard and, in particular, managing the rate at which grapes ripen, and therefore the rate at which sugars develop. He regularly strips leaves off vines early in the growing season, slowing photosynthesis.

Dr Forrest, like a number of New Zealand winemakers, already makes a range of low-alcohol wines produced under natural conditions. His The Doctors’ series boasts a 2013 Riesling at 8.5% abv and a 2013 Sauvignon Blanc at 9.5% abv.

If some makers are already making low-alcohol wines and it would appear, quite successfully, why are the New Zealand industry and government spending NZ$16.9m on more research and development? The answer will become clear over the next seven years.                




Latest Articles