by Charl Theron

During the 1980’s and 1990’s some wine critics propagated dark coloured, full-bodied, heavy red wines. This was exemplified by tannic wines with relatively high alcohol content. The use of phenolic ripeness as criterion for harvesting contributed to this phenomenon. These wines were usually medal winners, but were not necessarily favourites of public consumers. Over the last few years pressure is internationally applied to produce wines with lower alcohol. Traditional Bordeaux and Burgundy wines with alcohol levels between 12.5 to 13.5% have consequently become popular again.

The alcohol content of Californian Napa Cabernet Sauvignon wines increased from an average of 13.2% in 1981 to an average of 15.2% in 2013. A research survey by the Californian wine giant, E&J Gallo, found that persons between 25 to 45 years are interested to experiment with wine and other alcoholic beverages by adding fruit, sparkling water and ice to it in order to develop wine based cocktails.

In 2007 market research by the Californian cellar, Francis Ford Coppola, in the United Kingdom found that 28% of the respondents were concerned about the alcohol content of the wines they buy. The same research found in 2013 that the percentage of concerned respondents increased to 40%. This confirms the international concern about wines with relatively high alcohol content. The most important reasons for the concern are health, social responsibility and the taste of the wine, but countries like the United Kingdom (UK), New Zealand and Scandinavian countries adjusted their tax structures according to the alcohol content of the wines and also restricted the marketing and promotion of high alcohol wines.

The New Zealand government initiated partnerships with 17 wine cellars to research the production of lower alcohol wines without the addition of water or using alcohol reduction technology. The research program will last for 7 years and NZ$ 13 million was budgeted for it. Both viticulture and cellar procedures will be addressed. The challenges in the vineyard will be to produce grapes with lower sugar concentrations, without having natural higher fixed acid concentrations. Sites that naturally produce lower acid grapes must be identified and viticulture practices like lower leaf-grape ratios, irrigation, fertilisation, yield and Botrytis options will be investigated. Water addition prior to alcoholic fermentation or to wine is not permitted in New Zealand and alcohol reduction technology like reverse osmosis and spinning cone are seen as too expensive for low alcohol wines. Cellar practices like the harvest time, pressing, the termination of alcoholic fermentation to ensure balanced wines, yeast selection and temperature control will consequently be investigated. As a result of the cool climate of New Zealand, the production of typical cultivar wines with the necessary balance and an alcohol content of 9% is definitely possible.

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