Sauvignon Lightens Up

Alcohol isn’t everything.  I wish someone had told me that when I was eighteen and making an idiot of myself.  But back then there wasn’t much in the way of choice,  it was all or nothing.  Although they contained less alcohol, more than two beers made my stomach churn, I didn’t really rate sweet wine at the time and all the dry wines I liked had over 12% alcohol.  So my teenage self was stuck serenely enjoying a sauvignon one minute, then wobbling down Queen street declaring undying love and devotion to my doner kebab the next.

Growing long in the tooth and more educated over the years has meant I never buy wine for effect.  I drink it purely to take pleasure in the taste, so the alcohol level doesn’t concern me.  But the trend in recent years towards viewing wine as a health-conscious beverage has sparked some interesting new styles.  While its no secret that people are aware of the high antioxidant levels in red wine being held responsible for all manner of health-giving benefits, the consumer charge toward finding wines that are full of flavour but also low in alcohol and calories has our producers racing to meet demand.  Lighter styles of wine are streaking ahead of more traditional wines in the UK off-trade – up 61% according to the latest Nielsen data in a recent article published in the Harpers Wine and Spirit Trades Review.

Forrest ‘The Doctors’ Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2011

Earlier this month Sainsbury’s also announced it planned to double the sales of lighter alcohol wines (10% abv or less) by 2020, but with this being a relatively new category combined with my complete lack of research skills, means sales data for New Zealand isn’t available at the time of writing.  But the British are super-keen on these wines and they’re a huge market for our wine which is encouraging news for Dr John Forrest of Forrest Estate in Marlborough.  “My interest in lower alcohol wines was flamed back in 2006 with the release of our first ‘The Doctors’ 8.5% alcohol Riesling.  What quickly became apparent was that it was (initially at least) a female-focused market and a key reason for purchase was the modest alcohol” he says.  Forrest began a 5 year programme to develop a quality lower alcohol Marlborough sauvignon blanc.  “My goals were full-flavoured, sub 10% alcohol wine with good mouthfeel”.

But removing the alcohol (and subsequent calories) from a wine without stripping all the flavour is no doddle.  Dr Forrest and his team first looked at assessing differing terroirs within Marlborough to find fruit with good flavour profiles at lower brix (sugar) levels and then they applied winemaking techniques known to reduce alcohol and also trialled chemical and physical ‘de-alcoholisation’ methods on their sauvignon.  Long story short, nothing really worked.  Over the next two years of trials they just couldn’t get the flavours right in their premium fruit harvested at lower sugars.  The alcohol-reducing winemaking techniques only cut the levels slightly and the de-alcoholisation trials just resulted in what Forrest refers to as “the lower-alcohol beer curse – watery, unbalanced wine”.

At his wits end, Forrest began looking at so-called ‘lesser’ sites and found a vineyard with an unusual soil type which he says gave an amazing, pungent ‘cassis’ or red-currant leaf flavour at only 17 brix, and best of all it held this flavour through the ferment and into the bottle.  “Our first test wine in 2009 was vibrantly fruity, 9.5% alcohol, bone dry and very crisp.  Naively for 2010 we scaled up production expecting repeated success – not so.  I sampled [the fruit] daily from 16 brix and by 18 there was still no flavour change.  So we finally harvested at 18.5 brix and consequently produced a final wine with 9.5% alcohol and 24g/l residual sugar which had fruity character and a touch of sweetness which proved very popular – with the exception being older male sauvignon drinkers!” he laughs.

Forrest has since undertaken a series of experiments within the vineyard aimed at slowing sugar accumulation but maximise flavour development.  Forrest says the basis for this is founded on some German research where global warming  is threatening their classical, low-alcohol style of Riesling meaning they’re looking at ways of slowing rates of sugar accumulation.  He’s confident Forrest Estate can now regularly produce sustainably grown, natural, full-flavoured lower alcohol sauvignon blanc.

Alongside Forrest’s ‘The Doctors’ Marlborough Sauvignon you’ll find multi-award winning winery Invivo’s low alc – low cal version called ‘Bella’, a new version of Kim Crawford’s First Pick which claims to be 25% lighter in calories and alcohol compared to their regular sauvignon and a new, 2011 light sauvignon blanc from Waimea Estates in Nelson.

Some cynics I’ve spoken to (well, actually just my husband) reckon it’s all a marketing caper, a ‘build it and they will come’ type gimmick designed to prey on vulnerable, weight-weary women.   And maybe young women might be seduced by the idea of being able to be seen enjoying a glass of wine whilst keeping their calorie count down, is an attractive concept.  If you’d asked me two years ago if I’d consider regularly buying low alcohol wines, I’d have likely said I’d rather drink less if I were worried about my alcohol consumption and I’d always go for full flavour and high quality.  By the looks of this new breed, we can enjoy the best of both worlds.


Waimea Low Alcohol Nelson Sauvignon Blanc 2011 $22

30% less calories and alcohol than their regular sauvignon blanc, this version is water-white and has attractive passionfruit, preserved lemon and lime aromas.  Light, clean and lemony with a refreshing, tangy finish.

Waimea Low Alcohol Nelson Sauvignon Blanc 2011

Invivo ‘Bella’ Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2011 $19

Lovely lemon-lime sorbet aromas and a feijoa and passionfruit kick around the back teeth.  30% less calories and alcohol than their regular version, this wine is juicy, light-bodied but tasty and tropical with good length of flavour.

Invivo Bella Low-Cal Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2011

Forrest Estate ‘The Doctors’ 9.5% Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2011

Delicious crushed green herbs, mineral notes and subtle floral aromas lead to a punchy palate bursting with passionfruit, lime and elderflower characters.  A satisfying sauvignon with great length of flavour – one of the best examples around.


Forrest ‘The Doctors’ Low Alcohol Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2011