Wine professionals aren’t fervent advocates of the wider no- and low-category, it’s no secret. This however, doesn't make the public any less prone to cutting down their alcohol consumption.
As restaurants and sommeliers seem deaf to their guests' increasing interest in no- and low-alcohol choices, it wasn’t long ago that ex-Hakkasan Christine Parkinson urged on-trade wine professionals to catch up with the trend and take the category more seriously.
In sommeliers' defense, however, while no/lo beer and spirits have been making impressive progress over the past couple of years, most attempts to produce credible lower-abv wine alternatives have often yielded disappointing results that few would feel comfortable featuring alongside the likes of Sassicaia and Chateau Leoville Las Cases on their list.
A ‘natural’ solution
New Zealand winemaker Dr John Forrest has been working on a project to naturally lower wine's alcohol content for over a decade, with the aim to offer people typical varietal character and satisfying mouthfeel combined with a reassuring single-digit abv.
His project, now supported by a joint industry initiative of winegrowers, government and wine companies called NZ Lighter Wines Research Programme, started back in 2006.
His vision was to produce a wine that could cater to the needs of the mindful drinker. Hi first attempt was a ‘shameless’ replica of Ernst Loosen’s Dr Loosen Riesling Auslese, which clocks in at 8.5% abv thanks to a healthy dose of residual sugar (Forrest's the latest release has 76.5 g/l). ‘It didn’t go well,’ he admits, so he attempted physicochemical dealcoholisation and early harvest.
As both trials turned out to be ‘a failure’ too, Forrest’s focus shifted to the vineyard. He began experimenting with alternative trellising and leaf removal techniques to slow down sugar-building within the berry. By acting on ‘middle-age, working-age leaves, we ensure that a reduced sugar accumulation doesn’t affect flavour and phenolic ripening,’ says Forrest.
‘We delay veraison by about a week,' he explains, 'which gives us less sugar accumulation and a longer picking window where there’s no acid drop, so we can decide whether to pick the fruit light or full in flavour.’
The taste test
Currently, Forrest makes four wines within his lower-abv The Doctors’ range (Ernst Loosen’s Dr Loosen has left its mark on the name): a Sauvignon Blanc, a Pinot Noir rosé and a Pinot Noir red, all sitting at 9.5% abv; and a Riesling of 9% abv.
How do the wines taste? They taste like wine, which is both impressive – if compared to any other no/lo wine currently available on the market – and expected, considering a 9.5% wine is after all… well, wine.
Forrest’s 9.5% wines all appear dry on the palate (the Sauvignon Blanc has 7.4 g/l of acidity vs 6.1 g/l of residual sugar), they deliver full varietal character and spot-on texture. Being 4% abv lower than any other conventional New World Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Noir, the Doctors’ range is simply impressive.
What’s the catch?
That missing 4% abv means ‘you’ve got to put some character back into the wine’, and Forrest is pretty transparent about the solution: ‘We work in the winery adjusting yeast and fermentation conditions, and use 14 additives to make up for the loss of body and to improve texture and mouthfeel.’ He doesn’t specify which additives are adopted, yet assures that they are used on conventional wines too (which shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone: As natural wine advocates often like to point out, conventional wine may be made with 10s of approved additives).
On the flip-side of the coin, Forrest highlights that ‘all the key changes we applied for the loss of abv enhance the wine's longevity in the bottle, [in fact The Doctors’ labels] age much better in the bottle than conventional wines'.
Admittedly, The Doctors’ range has little in common with any of the 0% abv, dealcoholised expressions currently on the market. Yet in Forrest's opinion, lowering wine's alcohol shouldn't be about trashing the abv down to zero. The purpose is rather to reach a psychologically meaningful single-digit abv without compromising on taste and mouthfeel.
‘There is an unrealistic push to zero, and you guys [the UK wine trade] wrongly associate low with zero,’ he says, while stressing that reducing the alcohol by about one third is already ‘a bloody good effort. A 9% abv wine opens up to so many more occasions to enjoy wine’.
For the time being, the wines have caught fire in the off-trade only; but it won’t be long until restaurants realise that a 9.5% abv Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc could be the solution – or at least part of it – to tackle those dreadfully sinking lunchtime wine sales.
The Doctors' range is distributed by Seckford Agencies