Skinny wine a sign of the times
Damned if I know why people suddenly want to drink wines from which much of the "kick" has been removed.
But they do.
All over the world they are turning away from the rich, juicy and highly alcoholic wines to which we have become accustomed over the past 20 years, and are opting instead for less alcoholic, so-called skinny, or lifestyle wines.
And those who stand to profit most from this huge market shift, including New Zealand winegrowers, say they have the figures to prove it.
A study conducted last summer in the United Kingdom, the United States, Denmark, Canada, and Europe showed that 38 per cent of all wine drinkers (more than 80 million people) were buying wines with alcohol levels below 10.5 per cent alcohol.
In the UK alone sales of low-alcohol wines (many less than 5.5 per cent) are increasing by a whopping 250 per cent per month and now account for almost a fifth of all wine sold. In terms of cold hard cash, this means annual earnings from lower alcohol wines with fewer calories have grown virtually from nothing to nearly [PndStlg]40 million a year in the UK.
While there has also been a significant growth in the sale and consumption of lifestyle wines in this country too, their increased production in New Zealand has always been with an eye to the lucrative overseas market.
Hence the recent decision by government, in association with New Zealand Winegrowers, to spend $18m over the next few years on the country's largest-ever wine research project.
The aim is to deliver the full top- quality New Zealand wine experience, but with lower alcohol and fewer calories. And to do this without resorting to the manipulation involved in the growing and the production of many lifestyle wines now on the market.
This usually involves picking the grapes before the sugar levels, which determine the alcohol content, have risen too far; by diluting wines with fruit juice, or by stripping alcohol (and much of the flavour) from the finished wine in a process involving a bit of engineering.
"What we want to achieve," says Winegrowers boss Philip Gregan, "is the same effect naturally, by tweaking variables such as grape variety, exposure to sunlight, yeast type and fermentation times.
"We don't want it to be an industrial process. It has to be naturally produced. It's all about the quality." It will also be about wines with an alcohol content of around 9 per cent, not the lolly-water lightweights that weigh in at under 5.5 per cent and in this country cannot even be described as wines. They are popular, particularly in the UK, because they do not attract as much excise tax and are cheaper to buy.
The market New Zealand is aiming to satisfy is one driven mostly by women and by people more concerned about their health than the cost of the wine. And it is perfectly placed to do so because two of the varieties for which we are best known - sauvignon blanc and pinot noir - are both naturally lighter styles of wine, a natural fit.
The aim, however, is to make even fuller-bodied wines to satisfy the lifestyle market - reds at maybe 12-13 per cent and whites at 9-10 or thereabouts. Only research will determine how far it is possible to go without compromising quality and taste.
Seventeen wineries, including Mt Difficulty, in Central Otago, are taking part in the research.
Some current examples of skinny NZ wines:
Forrest 2013 The Doctors' Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, $20
A softer, but juicy, mouthwatering sauvignon that, thanks to careful vineyard management, weighs in at only 9.5 per cent alcohol. Pungent passionfruit leads the flavour charge.
Saint Clair 2013 Vicar's Choice Bright Light Sauvignon Blanc Rose, $19
An off-dry pink wine that contains 9.5 per cent alcohol, roughly twice that of the average beer but less than a full-blooded sauvignon. Lightly flavoured with redcurrants, passionfruit and gooseberries.
Peter Yealands 2013 Low Alcohol Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, $19
This innovative producer has managed to produce a simple totally dry sauvignon blanc that contains just 9 per cent alcohol, 25 per cent less than his mainstream model.
The Southland Times