Variations on a theme

As a young brass bandsman I remember playing a traditional Italian song called Carnival of Venice, complete with the several tricky, tuneful variations of the melody, in a solo competition.

The audience loved it and so did the judges. I won a medal.

Fifty years later and I can't help wondering whether some present-day "players" will get the same reception, not for their music, but for the wines – with variations – that they are making.

I'm talking in particular about sauvignon blancs. Not the crisp and herbaceous Marlborough models made in tanks that first attracted the world's attention in the 1980s and continue to do so, but the latest of several variations on that theme.

First it was savvies that differed depending on where they were grown – Marlborough, Martinborough, Hawke's Bay, wherever. Then it was savvies made with wild or different strains of yeast that were tweaked or matured in oak; more lately vineyard-specific savvies, sweet savvies and others with bubbles. The latest: a sauvignon blanc with 30 per cent less alcohol and 30 per cent fewer calories aimed specifically at a market that is becoming more aware of health, fitness and alcohol levels.

It's called Bella and it's the brainchild of a couple of mates – flying winemaker Rob Cameron and marketing whiz Tim Lightbourne – who returned from overseas and in 2006 hatched an innovative plan to make and market New Zealand wines around the world.

The result was Invovo, a label designed with the help of the fashion house Zambesi, which is also responsible for the classy, contemporary see-through label on Bella by Invivo, the low-alcohol/calorie sauvignon blanc launched at New Zealand Fashion Week.

Frankly, I have never seen a more inviting wine in my life – mouthwatering sauvignon blanc in a crystal-clear bottle, that's not ideal for storing wine I know, but who on earth will want to store this. None of which explains how Rob Cameron created a sauvignon which at 9 per cent is 3 or 4 per cent below the average alcohol level for such wines and, as a consequence, much lower in calories. The answer was to first select a parcel of grapes on land that encourages early ripening at fairly low sugar levels, which is critical to creating low-alcohol wine. Then, just to give the process a bit more encouragement, to pluck leaf from the side of the row that got the morning sun, allowing the fruit to ripen without becoming too sugar-ripe, or, alcoholic. And, for the same reason, to leave more leaf on the other side of the row to protect the fruit from the hotter afternoon sun.

The making of the wine also required a few more tricks, including an intense regime of battonage (stirring) to help create the texture and the body a lighter-alcohol wine requires. Also involved in the process was a piece of technological magic called reverse osmosis, which involved the filtration of the wine to reduce the already low-alcohol level by about another 1 per cent.

The result: a surprisingly full-flavoured sauvignon blanc driven by clean, fresh tropical and citrus fruit. A wine no long summer lunch should be without. The recommended retail price is $22. But a word of warning. Bella, grown in the Dashwood vineyards in Marlborough, made by Rob Cameron in the family winery at Mangawai Heads, north of Auckland, will be available only in limited quantities. Keep an eye out also for the mainstream Invivo range of wines.

The Southland Times