'Great future' in low-alcohol wines

Thirteen Marlborough wine companies are investing in the industry's largest research and development project to date in an effort to extract better ways of producing high-quality, low-alcohol, low-calorie wines.

The seven-year programme, Lifestyle Wines, kicked off earlier this year as a $17 million partnership between the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI), New Zealand Winegrowers (NZW), and 16 Kiwi wineries.

MPI would invest $8.13m into the programme and the wine industry would invest $8.84m.

Whitehaven chief winemaker Sam Smail said the company invested in the programme because they saw a "great future" in wine that was lower in alcohol and had fewer calories.

"We wanted to potentially make great low-alcohol wines without losing the quality impact," he said.

Low-alcohol wine was typically produced by extracting alcohol from finished wine, but this programme would focus on natural production using sustainable viticultural techniques and native yeasts.

Smail said the aim was to pick fruit at a lower sugar level, but that would not come without its difficulties.

"They can be quite green [if you pick them early] so you want ripe fruit with low sugar levels.

"We want to do it naturally without intervention. We want to do it naturally in the vineyards not in the winery." Whitehaven had no low-alcohol wines on the market, and Smail said it would be a few years before any low-alcohol wines came to fruition.

Mount Riley chief winemaker Matt Murphy said the company also invested in the programme to educate themselves and apply that knowledge to producing quality, lower-alcohol wines.

"We thought it was a great opportunity for us to get involved . . . there is a demand from customers in the marketplace to keep alcohol down in some of our wines.

"It's not hard to make a low-alcohol wine - it's a bit tricky - but that's why we got involved in the programme . . . to produce good [lower alcohol] wines."

The programme would help grow New Zealand's $1.3 billion wine export market and was designed to position New Zealand as No 1 in the world for high-quality, low-alcohol and low-calorie wines.

Demand for lower-alcohol, lower-calorie wine was increasing, Murphy said.

"The range of low-alcohol wines is limited currently so there is potential for growth in overseas markets.

"We haven't given it a huge amount of consideration but our sales team said it was something they could sell . . . [so] we will sell it domestically in the first instance and then branch overseas."

Mount Riley would produce their first low-alcohol sauvignon blanc this year, he said.

MPI said the low-alcohol wine market could be worth as much as $285m by 2023.

The Marlborough Express