How low can alcohol go?

The pros and cons of lighter alcohol ‘lifestyle’ wines. 

Words Joelle Thomson. Illustration Nicola Kimpton

Manipulation, dilution and confusion, or health, awareness and knowledge?

The new ‘lifestyle wine’ trend has been coloured positively and negatively by winemakers on both sides of the fence: those who make it and those who wouldn’t dream of doing so. 

What exactly is ‘lifestyle wine’? It’s not just any old stuff we pour ourselves when we knock off work and unwind from the day. ‘Lifestyle wine’ is the name of a new research programme launched nearly 18 months ago as a co-funded collaboration between New Zealand Winegrowers and the Ministry for Primary Industry. 

The aim? To make New Zealand the go-to country for very good quality, lower alcohol wines by 2023 and to increase export wine value by $285 million a year. There are 20 New Zealand wineries now making ‘lifestyle wines’, which contain lower alcohol. The word ‘lower’ begs the question: Lower than what? The answer is: Lower than most other wines but not, legally, ‘low alcohol’ because that means just 1.15% ABV (alcohol by volume) and then we might ask: Why bother?

The challenge in making flavoursome lower alcohol wines is ripeness and the choice of grapes best suited to the task. If the most important decision in winemaking is when to harvest grapes, then the ‘lifestyle wine’ movement has to select grapes that retain intense flavours even when not fully ripe. Enter Riesling.

Dr John Forrest’s Doctors’ Riesling from Marlborough has nine per cent alcohol and is flavoursome. He believes he can retain flavour by pruning his vineyard earlier than usual to depower vine vigour. “I think it’s a winner and believe we have opened up a new category for New Zealand wine,” he says. Forrest freely admits there is negativity about ‘lifestyle wines’ from wine drinkers who have spotted tart, austere, green-tasting wines that do not express grape or region. But Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and, perhaps, Chenin Blanc, Müller-Thurgau and Muscat, might help because they have strong flavours and naturally high acidity.

The drink-driving law change in 2014 created strong demand for lower alcohol wines (ironically, given the high alcohol craft beer movement). Health concerns are another tick in their favour. Lifestyle winemakers are now focusing on sustainable vineyard growing methods, native yeasts to ferment to lower alcohol levels without sacrificing flavour, and on fine tuning their winemaking.

Germany and Italy produce significant quantities of lower alcohol wines with stacks of flavour; Moscato and Riesling may have fallen from popularity in this part of the world, but they are ideal low alcohol wines with intensely delicious, succulent flavours. The new ‘lifestyle wine’ movement has the potential to tick many valid boxes, but its name is misleading, because many New Zealanders have already embraced wine in their lifestyles without giving a second thought to its alcohol content, as they aren’t driving home or consuming high volumes. 

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