Wine producers reduce the alcohol to meet more sophisticated palates

Friday, 1 November, 2013
Ben Knight, The Guardian
The increasing popularity of good quality lower-alcohol whites and reds has led to calls for wine to be taxed accordingly says Ben Knight.
In Australia we live not only under the Southern Cross, but also under a hefty tax on wine. About 40% of the cost of a bottle of wine is tax, thanks to a combination of GST and the wine equalisation tax – equal to 29% of the wholesale price. So on an expensive bottle, the tax may be a very considerable sum.

So it’s unsurprising that the idea of taxing wine according to its alcohol content – which is how spirits and beer are taxed – is gaining increasing traction, with new calls for an overhaul this week. Aside from potentially increasing revenue and reducing alcohol consumption, the move would make both high-end and lower-alcohol wines more affordable.

Australian drinkers have been moving away from the big reds and buttery chardonnays and towards more elegant, refined – and lower-alcohol – wines for some time. These finer boned wines are able to express a sense of place more readily than those with extremely ripe fruit and deafening concentration.

Lower-alcohol reds are often less voluminous, less rich, but they offer more spice, a tighter palate and more perfume. The new wave of Barossan red, for instance, is reducing the hang time of the grapes and delivering wines that can refresh and enliven.

White wines are also beginning to be more playful. There is a move to juggle the balance of sugar and acid in riesling, and make chardonnay more piercing and focused. Australian semillon has remained lower in alcohol, and whites such as vermentino and some pinot grigio are bringing greener fruit and truly crisper wines. We are starting to embrace acidity on a whole new level.

At the cheaper end of the scale, the reds tend to be sweet and sparkling. White wines tend to have two expressions, those with residual sugar and those without: these wines have fermented to dryness and are racy and very fine indeed.

This move towards lower alcohol wines is due to drinkers’ evolving palates and a desire for clearer heads in the morning – and the evening for that matter. But it is also driven by buyers in the trade, seemingly searching endlessly for the bottle that best emulates the greats from the old world, famous for lower alcohol.

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