Over several years we have seen the development and promotion of low alcohol wines in the marketplace.
There has been some concern by consumers that as the ripeness of grapes has increased through better vineyard management practices, the benefits of better quality wine has been tempered to some degree by the increased sugar levels of riper grapes being converted to higher alcohol wines. This coupled with an increased awareness of the dangers of excessive alcohol consumption and a desire to act responsibly when consuming wine has resulted in the search for high quality wines that have reduced alcohol levels.
In the early 1980s we embraced reduced alcohol wines with the production of the very popular Muller Thurgau. This is a Riesling styled wine where grape juice was added to the finished wine which added a fresh fruity aromatic component to the wine but also diluted the alcohol content.
Grapes have the distinction of having the highest sugar content of any fruit which makes it perfect for fermentation, the process where alcohol in wine is created by yeast converting sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide. Depending on their ripeness and resulting sugar levels, most grapes will produce wine that ferments to between 10 and 14% alcohol by volume. The alcohol is important as it acts as a preservative, helps with the flavours and mouthfeel as well as the social side consumers enjoy with moderate consumption.
To create a wine with less alcohol than normal requires special techniques such as fermenting less ripe grapes, retaining sugar in the finished wine (less sugar fermented creates less alcohol), adding back fresh grape juice to dilute the alcohol or using reverse osmosis to remove alcohol through technology.
The difficulty with producing good reduced alcohol wines is in replacing the texture, weight and mouth-feel that alcohol gives to the ‘body’ of the wine. There are already some great examples of naturally occurring reduced alcohol styles; Prosecco, Moscato, some German and New Zealand Rieslings and Australian Hunter Valley Semillons. There is also new research being undertaken to find yeasts that will produce wines with lower alcohol levels.
The trick to producing reduced alcohol wine is to create good quality drinkable wine – this is really the ‘acid test’ for producing any wine. In response to customer demand, the New World Wine Awards was the first New Zealand wine show to introduce a class for wines marketed as lower or reduced alcohol.