Health and wellness is surely the trend that has shaped the drinks industry during 2019 more than any other.
With alcohol consumption continuing to decline, companies large and small are rushing to create low and no alcohol beers, wines and spirits catering for the fast growing demographic of health conscious consumers.
A group of New Zealand winemakers have been well in front of this trend, and they just might have delivered one of the most important wine innovations in recent memory.
Naturally better for you
Eighteen Kiwi wine companies are collaborating on the NZ Lighter Wines initiative, aiming to produce wines that are naturally lighter in alcohol, while offering a drinking experience equal to their full-strength counterparts.
Among their number are giant brands such as Stoneleigh, Brancott Estate, Giesen and Villa Maria, but the project was actually pioneered by Dr John Forrest, of the family-owned boutique company Forrest Wines.
Forrest says he began thinking about the market potential in 2005 when he saw the consumer reception for his riesling, which is a grape that naturally lends itself to making lower alcohol wines.
"I launched it at a tasting attended by around 70 people in Christchurch… I'm not lying to you when I say that every female in that room who tried that wine commented on how nice it was to have a lighter in alcohol wine that was good," he says.
"I thought to myself, if I can make the number one white wine in the world by volume and value – Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc – at eight to nine per cent ABV, showing typicity of the region, that would be the next big thing."
Forrest initially began experimenting with de-alcoholisation techniques to remove alcohol from the finished wine, but was unimpressed with the results.
"Two years was wasted. They were thin, insipid and unsatisfying wines for what you expect Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc to be," he recalls.
He then began studying his vineyards to establish which plots expressed varietal and regional character at slightly lower sugar levels.
"I struck upon one vineyard that seemed to express the crushed blackcurrant leaf aroma of mid-ripe Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, quite early," he says.
Making a winner
But Forrest's crucial discovery was that he could moderate sugar levels in the grapes by selectively pruning from the vines certain leaves that are most active in producing sugars.
"If you can remove at a critical time a subset of those 'worker bee' leaves, then you can slow the plant's ability to make sugar by 30 to 40 per cent, but flavour carries on and acid drop carries on," he says.
Forrest released the first vintage of The Doctors' Sauvignon Blanc, a 9.5 per cent ABV wine, in 2008.
By 2012 it had picked up its first gold medal in a wine competition, judged blind alongside full-strength wines.
A light initiative
In an effort to create a groundswell behind this category of wines, Forrest shared his findings with other New Zealand winemakers.
The resulting NZ Lighter Wines initiative was backed by a $17-million R&D programme established in 2014, and affiliated companies began introducing other low alcohol wines.
Among them is Giesen, a hugely popular brand in Australia, where it hopes to build on its current daily sales of 13,000 bottles with the launch of Giesen Pure Light sauvignon blanc and pinot gris.
Giesen senior winemaker Duncan Shouler says Marlborough sauvignon blanc is better suited to making low alcohol wine than just about any other grape on the planet.
This is because it is so intensely aromatic to begin with, that even a reduction in alcohol – which is a vehicle for aroma compounds – cannot tame its varietal character.
"The compound of sauvignon blanc that makes it smell like passionfruit and pineapple is called a thiol," he says.
"Your average thiol of an international sauvignon blanc is about 1500 nanograms per litre.
"Marlborough sauvignon blanc is about 15,000 nanograms per litre, so it's very significantly higher – it's like sauvignon blanc on steroids."
Better, bolder, rosier
But John Forrest isn't content with the success of The Doctors' sauvignon blanc, which today is the UK market leader, sold in Tesco supermarkets across the nation.
He has expanded The Doctors' range to include a rose and what could be the only low alcohol pinot noir in the world.
The debut 2017 pinot noir was a creditable example of the variety, and the follow-up 2018 is even better, standing very comfortably alongside any full-strength pinot noir at its $25 price point.
NZ Lighter Wines program manager David Jordan says the biggest challenge confronting the wineries is educating consumers that lower alcohol needn't mean compromising on flavour or drinkability.
"I think many consumers have been burnt in previous years by trying some lower alcohol offerings that were inferior," he says.
"Our approach is trying to get as many tasting experiences to consumers as we can, to lift the awareness."
Listen to a podcast on New Zealand's low alcohol wine pioneers here.