Low alcohol Sauvignon Blanc the breadwinner of tomorrow

Monday, 1 April, 2019
Dr. Carien Coetzee
Consumers moderating their alcohol intake, whether it be for health awareness or self-assessment, can be seen all over. It’s called moderation occasions and we all do it at some stage, while more and more consumers are adapting ‘moderation’ as a lifestyle.

The beer companies have successfully tapped this market and are leading the way (aiming for 20% of all sales to be low/no alcohol by 2025) with the wine industry following in its wake, struggling to catch on...until now.

A presentation by Dr. David Jordan and Richard Lee at the 2019 International Sauvignon Blanc Celebration held in Blenheim, Marlborough, delivered some interesting insights into the production of natural low alcohol wines (no reverse osmosis or spinning cone) and taking Sauvignon Blanc to the next level.

The New Zealand producers are in the process of perfecting the recipe for the production of natural low alcohol wines and are already achieving great success in this category thanks to the Lifestyle Wines PGP programme co-funded by New Zealand Winegrowers and the Ministry for Primary Industries’ Primary Growth Partnership (PGP). In 2014, they launched the largest research initiative ever undertaken by the New Zealand wine industry costing them NZ$17m. The focus is on the natural production of lighter-in-alcohol wines (defined as wines containing less than 10% alcohol by volume). There are 18 wineries participating in this 7-year project (they are now at year 6) and the results are astounding.

Thanks to this project, low alcohol Sauvignon blanc wines from New Zealand are enjoying great success and numerous producers have top end products on the shelves including Forrest Wines, Spy Valley, Brancott, Stoneleigh, Wither Hills, and Villa Maria. Currently, an annual growth of 17% is seen for this category and 6% of all New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc wine sold, are lower in alcohol. Fruitful and fresh aromatics make this variety ideal for the production of low alcohol wines. Other than that, according to Jordan and Lee, Sauvignon Blanc drinkers are more likely than the average premium wine drinker to purchase lighter wines.

The market opportunity is real. In the ’80s the New Zealand wine industry attempted to produce low alcohol wine and failed, not because of bad quality, but because the timing was not right. The timing is right now, and South African producers need to make sure they are not missing out. Aging baby boomers and health-conscious millennials are said to drive low to no alcohol drinks and lighter wines are seen as the “the breadwinner of the future”. One in three premium wine drinkers moderates their alcohol intake occasionally. And 45% of premium wine drinkers are likely to purchase lighter wine providing that it has comparable flavour to their normal wine of choice. Another reason to attempt this style of wine is that consumers interested in these wines are not driven by price but by health and lifestyle choices and are willing to pay more if the quality is there.

So how does the New Zealand industry achieve this?

The researchers are focussing on several elements to fine tune the production of low alcohol wine:

  • Sensory

It is important to understand the impact of 10 % alcohol on the sensory properties of a wine. The intricate interplay of fixed acid, pH, residual sugar, carbon dioxide and flavour complexity are researched. For instance, the use of residual sugar will help soften the perception of acidity while contribution to the palate weight.

  • Vineyard

Elements such as site, harvest timing, clone and canopy management are key. The aim is to freeze frame the sugar accumulation while still maintaining flavour development. One of the techniques employed involves reducing the canopy height, manipulating the way the plant develops. Specific sites can also be selected with cooler locations showing more potential to gain a riper profile at lower grape sugar levels. Specific sites known to produce lower acidity could also be utilised. New Zealand producers successfully produce Sauvignon Blanc wines with 9 % alcohol while preserving the typicality of the variety and maintaining overall balance. The cooler regions of South Africa also have the potential to create such wines.

  • Winery

Yeast strains with lower conversion rates of sugar to alcohol can be the holy grail of low alcohol wines, however, more research and development is needed in this category. Winemakers also use yeast strains that can lower the natural acidity in the early harvested grapes and also producers terminate the fermentation prior to completion to allow some residual sugar. The perception of dryness is maintained by the natural acidity and higher CO2 levels in the wines at bottling. Other techniques such as skin contact, lees contact and the use of mannoproteins can also contribute to the palate weight.

  • Marketing

How to capture and promote the unique selling points of lower alcohol wines.

The key is to still meet the consumer’s flavour expectation when drinking a low alcohol wine and it can be done! New Zealand producers enter their low alcohol wines in the same wine show category as their sister full-strength counterparts and are awarded medals (in some cases even superseding their “superiors”).

The advantage of using Sauvignon Blanc for the production of this style of wine is that the consumer knows and trusts the variety. Being South Africa’s best seller, Sauvignon Blanc will be a safer option to purchase compared to another variety. The importance of producing high-quality wines in this sector is crucial. Even though lower alcohol wines are very much sought after by the consumer, the general perception is still that these wines are of inferior quality. New Zealand has shown that it is possible to create quality wines that compete on “unfair” grounds and still rise to the top. By ensuring quality, their reputation is protected. Something the South African wine industry cannot afford to ignore.

For the South African wine industry to successfully enter this market, we need to work together. The amount of intellectual property that the kiwi producers are prepared to share with each other is quite amazing. Other than the official projects underway, producers are also actively conducting their own related experiments and trails (willing to take substantial risk and expenditure) and information is openly shared and discussed. The experimental wines are then evaluated among producers at various scheduled events throughout the year. Collectively, they enhance this wine sector, a sector that also shows huge potential for the South African wine industry.

Acknowledgments: Sauvignon Blanc Interest Group of South Africa, Diemersdal Wine Estate, Laffort South Africa, New Zealand Wine Growers Association.