Low alcohol wine, with viticulturalist Dr David Jordan: S4E6

Low alcohol wine that is full-flavoured and expressive of variety and region – that is the remit of the NZ Lighter Wines initiative.

Program manager Dr David Jordan – known to his industry peers as ‘DJ’ – joins us this episode of the Drinks Adventures podcast to discuss this low alcohol wine range that is now available in Australia.

A renowned viticulturalist, DJ consults to many leading wineries in Australia and New Zealand.


This interview with DJ was recorded recently in Marlborough, New Zealand, where I was a guest of New Zealand Lighter Wines.

Follow James Atkinson on Facebook here, Instagram here and Twitter here.

Theme music ‘Sandbox’ by Rudists.

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Dr David Jordan, NZ Lighter Wines program manager
Dr David Jordan, NZ Lighter Wines program manager

Low alcohol wine with viticulturalist Dr David Jordan: Full transcript

James: D.J., Thanks so much for joining me on the Drinks Adventures podcast.

D.J.: I’m very pleased to be here, thanks James.

James: It’s been a really interesting few days, learning about the New Zealand Lighter Wines initiative. How did you get involved with it? Maybe you could just go back to the start, just tell me how this all kicked off.

D.J.: It really stemmed from an awareness of one of our pioneers in our industry, Dr. John Forrest. With a product that he was starting to work with, a lower alcohol Sauvignon Blanc. It really opened my eyes and mind, to the opportunities of alternate variations of what we’re doing so well here in Marlborough. In taking Sauvignon Blanc of international standard around the world, but looking at broadening that base with alternate variations.

D.J.: John was showing us, at nine and a half percent alcohol, he can produce a Marlborough-style Sauvignon Blanc.

James: He wasn’t able to do that overnight though, that was a gradual thing. What actually goes into creating that wine?

D.J.: Actually, a lot more effort than a standard wine. So, thinking right from the vineyard and how we can manage the vines to produce juice with lower sugar, as you’ll appreciate. Alcohol’s the product of converting grape sugar into alcohol, with yeast as our friend at their process.

Low alcohol low sugar wine

D.J.: If we can start with grape juice of a lower sugar level, we end up with wines with a lower finished alcohol. That sounds simple, but it actually takes a lot of effort in the vineyard: to manage vines, to identify vineyards that naturally supply grapes with juice of lower sugar levels, acid that works best for products with lower alcohol.

D.J.: Then taking that grape juice into the winery, with an understanding we’re aiming for lower alcohol levels, and using all the techniques that we know about wine making to generate wines of international appeal, but with a lower alcohol outcome.

How to make low alcohol wine

James: What are the viticultural practices that you’ve discovered, that will give you these best results?

D.J.: One of the most powerful tools, is managing the canopies. The grape leaves are the powerhouse of sugar generation on a grapevine. So you don’t have to be Einstein to think about less leaves, less sugar. However, the leaves also contribute to flavour and other development aspects of grapes and their maturity.

D.J.: It’s not only reducing the leaves to reduce the sugar, it’s also the timing of reducing those leaves, and which leaves to remove. We’ve spent many years now trying to perfect the timing, the leaves to remove to result in grape juice that’s lower sugar but still resulting in flavoursome wine.

James: One of the things we’ve heard today, was also that site plays a role.

D.J.: It’s a big part of the selection of fruit, that’s suitable for lower alcohol wine. The growers and winemakers in this region have spent a lot of time analysing their grapes, to understand those that ripen with full flavour but at lower sugar levels. Part of that understanding, is also the acid level.

Dr John Forrest explains how he makes low alcohol wine in New Zealand
Dr John Forrest explains how he makes low alcohol wine in New Zealand

D.J.: This interplay of alcohol, sugar and acid is a very key part of the balance of the perception of wines for the consumer. Grapes that come in with lower acid, gives you a much more fighting chance to produce wines of interest at lower alcohol levels.

James: When we were at Giesen today, they said that they weren’t following the same practices that John forest was to get these outcomes. Is that just because they have much larger vineyard resources to deal with, so that they can focus on picking the fruit from the sites that are going to deliver that sort of outcome?

D.J.: The greater population of vines within the Giesen holdings, does give them an opportunity to work in a different way to forest. There are other considerations though, when it comes to the commercial production of these wines.

D.J.: Take for example, taking grapes into the winery. If you can pick grapes early in the sequence, it gives you greater utilisation, better utilisation in winery. That’s a consideration of risk management, as well. So if you can get some grapes into the winery by early harvesting, it gives you some security of the outcome, because the grapes are safer in the winery than they are still the vineyard.

D.J.: We see a number of the commercial operators making a range of decisions, about their approach to making these Lighter Wines. So that’s why you see at this stage differences between the various wineries in their approaches.

James: So when did you actually embark on this journey? How did that happen?

D.J.: It really started back in 2011, when seeing John Forrest first vintages starting to raise a profile. Then it was canvassing potential wineries, that have already started to experiment or were contemplating getting in the space.

D.J.: Then we formalised the arrangement through a range of collective thinking, and a formal business case that was prepared in 2013. And we were able to secure funding from the 18 wine companies, New Zealand Wine Growers, which is the industry association, were prepared to commit industry funds to support the research.

D.J.: Then with those funds, were able to get matching funding from one of the government agencies that had their funding for research, but had to have vertical integration. So, from production all the way through to market. This was an ideal proposition, the Lighter Wine Proposal.

D.J.: That was 2014, the big green button was pushed and the program was underway. So we’re five and a half years into that research program.

James: The first lighter wine that John Forrest created, he wasn’t really sitting out to create a lighter wine, was he? And that’s because some varieties, such as Riesling, just lend themselves to making a lower alcohol wine. Maybe you could explain why that is.

D.J.: Yes. Well, it really reflects the variety, and its natural characteristics and composition. So something like Riesling is very flexible as a wine style. The match of sugar, alcohol and acid comes in a form that gives you a style, that you can produce a lower alcohol offering in Riesling.

D.J.: The acid is quite high, so you use some of the sugar to balance it off. By using the sugar, and retaining the sugar, that hasn’t been converted to alcohol. The Germans have shown this for many years, a lower alcohol-balanced wine with acid and sugar.

D.J.: For John, it was the light bulb moment of seeing the response of consumers, and hearing them comment about why they found his nine and a half or 9% alcohol Riesling, and why they were liking it. They were talking about how they desired to have wines of lower alcohol, and it was like, “Why can’t I do this with some of my other wine styles?” There became the challenge.

D.J.: He’s a technically very able wine maker, and at that time nobody was doing it. He pioneered some of these approaches to make wines of comparable quality, at lower alcohol.

James: Is this something that Marlborough Wine or New Zealand Wine generally lends itself to creating, rather than other regions around the world?

D.J.: I believe so, because of the intensity of flavor that naturally comes in the grape juice from the vineyards we have here. That gives us a head start compared to many of the other regions of the world, so that we have richer and more flavorsome grape juice at those earlier ripening spectrum.

D.J.: Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc typically is about 10 times the level of [inaudible 00:07:22]. The very pungent passion fruit and those lifted aromas naturally occur in Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, but you don’t find that in any other international wine style.

James: What about once the fruit is in the winery? What are the sort of things that happen at that stage, to try and get the best outcomes?

D.J.: Yeast is one of the main focus for our wine makers, to manage that conversion of sugar into alcohol. A number of yeast suppliers now are identifying the demand for yeasts, that are less efficient at converting sugar into alcohol. The wine makers are using those approaches, concentrating on the balance.

D.J.: So how you manage acids throughout the fermentation process, to result in lower acid wines, texture. So, what can we be doing to manage the grape juice during fermentation? And finishing to ensure that the wine texture is one that matches well with this lower alcohol positioning of the product.

James: What do you think is the current consumer understanding of lower alcohol wines, and how much of a barrier is that out there?

D.J.: I think we’ve got a number of aspects of that, it’s still very early days in the awareness. Our approach is trying to get as many tasting experiences to the consumers as we can, to lift the awareness. I think many consumers that may be thinking about lower alcohol wines, have been burned in previous years by trying some lower alcohol offerings that have conditioned their thinking. The wines are getting to be inferior.

D.J.: So we’ve also got an education piece presenting the wines, so they can be reassured these wines are equal to the wines that they would expect from a full strength.

James: How were those low alcohol wines of old produced?

D.J.: Many of them are mechanically produced. Mechanically reducing the alcohol, or removing the alcohol from the wine. There are a number of mechanical techniques: reverse osmosis, spinning cone. That physically takes the alcohol out of the wine, through a distillation process typically. Or a some form of membrane filtration.

D.J.: We believe producing the wines naturally are much more appealing to consumers, but also result in a wine that’s less distorted in its finished format. That’s representing full strength wines, but a lower alcohol level.

James: When you de-alcoholise, are you stripping out some flavour?

D.J.: There is a risk of that. It’s still a close proximity, or facsimile, but there is a number of risks to distort the flavour profile through the mechanical process.

James: What’s the outcome that you’re looking for with these wines, that form part of this group? What should they deliver for consumers?

D.J.: They should deliver all the experience they expect from drinking a wine, but at a lower alcohol level.

James: And not only that, the varietal and regional character?

D.J.: All the expression you expect, so it’d be variety or the vintage of the year, the flavour, both aroma, all the way through the whole experience. And maybe at a 25 or 30 per cent lower alcohol level.

James Atkinson of the Drinks Adventures podcast enjoying some low alcohol wine
James Atkinson of the Drinks Adventures podcast enjoying some low alcohol wine

Low alcohol wine Australia

James: Some of these products have already been in the market for some time now. What’s been the early sales results?

D.J.: The early sales result are very encouraging. I think we’ve hit, our timing is perfect with the movement. We know consumers 30, 40 up to 50% of many of the markets we’re selling these wines, those consumers, premium wine consumers are desiring wines to be of lower alcohol. The whole wellness and wellbeing movement, is converging around a consideration for many of the consumers about their choice of wine.

D.J.: So offering low alcohol wine, we’re seeing that uptake in sales that are reflecting the consumer trends.

James: Yeah, so what are some of the consumer trends that have really inspired this initiative? Is this something, that New Zealand wine growers has had an eye on for some time?

D.J.: We have. We had the experience through the pioneers with Forrest, that were seeing some sales traction. That we’re saying, “This is real.” With consumer taste profiling, so we’ve interviewed consumers, put wines in front of consumers to understand what their preferences are. We’re finding many consumers actually prefer the Lighter Wines, over the full strength equivalent.

D.J.: It’s that convergence of seeing some sales traction, but also doing the market research and interviewing, and understanding the consumer desire, that’s combined and converged, to give us the confidence in the products that we’re making.

James: You’ve also had the opportunity to subject people to blind tastings, and obviously the wines have had some success on the show circuit for starters, when competing with full strength.

D.J.: The show circuit is very exciting for us, to see that these wines are submitted into full strength wine classes. We’ve had show results across Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Rosé, and now a lighter Pinot Noir, picking up golds and trophies in full strength classes.

D.J.: So the judges, experienced wine judges, are unaware that in the flight that they are tasting, there are wines of low alcohol. They’re not detecting it, and they’re acknowledging them being of gold or similar award standard.

D.J.: Blind taste testings are very eye-opening, I think, to those that are experience them. There’s still that perception as they approach the wine that’s labeled lighter or lower in alcohol, it’s going to be inferior in some way. If you do it blind, you remove the preconceptions, and the wines are taken on face value.

D.J.: It’s been an eye-opener to us to see the response, and for some of those very experienced tasters, to think, “Wow, these wines are better than we expected.”

James: Now, John Forrest created some of the IP around this project. Then he’s pretty much shared that with all the other wine makers, that are part of this of Lighter Wine project. It seems unusual to have got so many people to cooperate, and for him to have given up that information. What do you think was his motivation for doing that? And why do you think you’ve managed, to get all these people with competing interests in the same room to agree to work together?

D.J.: I think there’s two parts. One, the Kiwis are used to working together and collaborating in a whole range of forms. Whether it’s technical production of wine, or grape growing or working in the market together, shoulder-to-shoulder. It really reflects a small country mentality, that the world seems so big that you can’t do it alone, and the idea of there’s strength in numbers. That’s well embedded in the DNA here, within our wine industry.

D.J.: The other part, I think from John’s point of view in handing over the IP, he was a lone voice, seeing it’s very challenging to get any traction as a single brand out there talking about these new products. Multiple brands are giving us much more traction within the trade, and we’re seeing that really starting to pay dividends now, especially with new trends.

D.J.: That the trade is saying, we’ve got multiple brand, an opportunity to have shelf space, that gives prominence and profile that enables the trade to work within this new category as well.

James: And he made the comment today as well, that the last thing he wanted was to have someone put out a low alcohol wine that was an inferior product.

D.J.: That’s another, and hence why he’s so keen to offer up his knowledge, and so generously shares his knowledge broadly about his experience in the market technically. To ensure that we get across the board, the products all fulfilling an expectation and not letting the team down.

James: Why do you think no one’s done this before? And are you not aware of anyone else- [crosstalk 00:14:45]

D.J.: Well, I’m not aware of any other international industry, collectively approaching this new category. I think there had been such a traditional beverage producing sector of the trade, and it’s constrained thinking. Our industry’s rolled through, every 10 years there’s been something innovative with it. Being screw cap, or sustainability.

D.J.: Sauvignon Blanc was innovative. We are comfortable with innovative, and taking new products to a very traditional market. I think you’ll find it in those more bonded industries, that they get restless…The idea of offering up something new and exciting, is in their DNA.

James: And you’re talking specifically about New Zealand’s-

D.J.: New Zealand approach to pretty much any agricultural industry, but it’s very real and in our wine industry.

James: What do you think is the longterm potential for this project, where you consider that we’re looking at wines that sit in this, maybe $12 to $25 price point currently. Is there a potential ever, to see that people would be making deliberately low alcohol wines with even higher quality fruit than that?

D.J.: I think it’s going to happen naturally, as we’ll see the diversification around the product range. And we’re seeing the traction with the market, with what could be considered the more commercial end of the spectrum. People like John Forrest with his Pinot noir, what an eye-opener that is, to have a nine and a half percent Pinot noir, and I think it’s tasting through.

D.J.: If you closed your eyes, you would think it’d be a $25, $30, $35 bottle of wine. From that I think we will see the platform for higher priced, lower alcohol wines being produced and offered to the market.

James: What do you think is going to be the reaction from the old world wine regions, to this project?

D.J.: Well, I think that they will always look down their nose a bit, of what we’ve done. Many of them may look back, multi-generations, think Bordeaux wines were at 11, 11 and a half percent wines. We’ve been there in many moons ago. I suspect some of them might reflect back, that they could think about their own alcohol levels.

D.J.: German cousins that are making wines in this space, I think, will enjoy a revival and a resurgence of attention to their wines that are naturally in that space. I think we’ll see this momentum come, in so many ways.

James: You’ve obviously worked at a lot of different vineyards, helping winemakers out with a lot of different styles and varieties of wine. Does this sort of project excite you, just as much as working, helping people make really high-end Pinot Noir, for example?

D.J.: Oh, it does. Yeah. It’s technically very challenging. Also, the idea you can be aligned with something new, which we’re writing a textbook, effectively, on how to make these wines. You can’t just go and get the recipe to make a lighter wine. We’re providing all the foundation information, the experience that’s coming out of every vintage, to enable us to be more and more successful.

D.J.: But every year is a new proposition, a new challenge. We heard that from John Forrest today. He talked about the vintages that were most challenging, giving him greater confidence in future vintages because that experience built a broader base of knowledge.

James: Fantastic. Well, D.J., thanks so much for your time.

D.J.: No, I really appreciate it. It was so nice getting to meet you and show you our vineyards, our wineries, and the personalities with the Lighter Wines.

James: Cheers.

Author: James Atkinson

Journalist specialising in the food, drink, travel and hospitality arenas. Australian International Beer Awards 2017 Media Award Winner and Certified Cicerone®.

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