New Zealand winery helps carve out the lower alcohol wine category: ‘Lower ABV is a feature, not a compromise!’

By Rachel Arthur

- Last updated on GMT

Stoneleigh's chief winemaker Jamie Marfell
Stoneleigh's chief winemaker Jamie Marfell

Related tags Wine New zealand

New Zealand has set out to be a pioneer in the lower alcohol wine category, with consumers showing a growing appetite for such products. The challenge has always been to create wines that maintain the same quality as their traditional counterparts, but Stoneleigh believes its new launches have succeeded: “Quite often, experienced wine tasters don’t know it’s a lighter wine until we tell them.”

Consumers are increasing their focus on health and wellness, often seeking to substitute their traditional drinks for lower alcohol and lower calorie versions. While the trend has been more pronounced in the beer industry, New Zealand has set out to be a pioneer in lower alcohol wines.

Pernod Ricard's wine brand Stoneleigh has launched Stoneleigh Bright, a new wine range with an AVB of 9.5% - which is 25% less alcohol than its standard wines. The brand says it has succeeded in creating a lower ABV launch that still maintains the ‘distinct, vibrant style of the winery'.

Pioneering lower alcohol wines

Consumers around the world are increasing their focus on health and wellness, resulting in a decrease in alcohol intake. Data from Wine Intelligence suggests 50% of consumers are looking to reduce their alcohol intake, with 40% of these turning to lower alcohol options.

This trend is particularly apparent among millennials, who are much more health-conscious than previous generations.    

While lower alcohol beers have been growing in popularity, lower alcohol wines remain a niche category​ on a global scale, according to Wine Intelligence.

But it says the strongest opportunity for the category is in New Zealand, followed by Australia (out of 11 key wine markets analysed by the company last year). Wines that are naturally lower in alcohol are likely to have a better chance of success than those where alcohol is reduced via mechanical methods, it adds.

Based in the celebrated Marlborough wine region of New Zealand’s South Island, Stoneleigh is one of Pernod Ricard New Zealand Winemaker’s brands. It prides itself on the distinctive stone-studded Rapaura soils of its vineyards, ‘which create a wine style that is fresh, crisp and vibrant – the flavour of Stoneleigh’.

Jamie Marfell inspects the vines ahead of harvest at Stoneleigh Vineyard (P)

Across the wine industry, interest in lower-alcohol beverages has spurred efforts to ensure the taste is comparable to traditional counterparts.

“We are seeing many more high-quality, lower alcohol offerings on the market,” ​Jamie Marfell, chief winemaker, Stoneleigh told BeverageDaily. 

“Historically, low alcohol was associated with lower quality and reduced flavour. But consumers are trying wines like Stoneleigh Bright and realising it tastes just as good but has the benefit of lower alcohol. The lower ABV is seen as an added feature, rather than a compromise.”   

In the case of Stoneleigh Bright, Marfell says the brand has been successful in addressing the taste challenge – “quite often when we them with experienced wine tasters, they don’t know it’s a lighter wine until we tell them,”​ he said.

“To make Stoneleigh Bright, we are using grapes that ripen earlier in the growing season. The earlier ripening does give them a slightly different flavour profile to grapes that ripen more slowly, but the variation is similar to what you get from grapes grown in different soils or different vineyards – it’s a really subtle difference. 

“Stoneleigh Bright wines are still very clearly Marlborough wines, full of bright fruit flavours and crisp acidity, and they are crafted to give the same freshness of flavour and complexity.” 

stoneleigh bright inset

Stoneleigh Bright Marlborough Pinot Gris 2018​ has an ABV of 9.5% (compared to Stoneleigh Marlborough Pinot Gris 2018 at 13% ABV).

The wine is “a pale gold colour and opens with aromas of pear and apple. There are tropical hints of pineapple and papaya. The fruit notes carry through to the palate, which is lively and fresh, then delivering a crisp finish.”

The wine can be paired with equally fresh and light dishes such as Vietnamese summer rolls, or crisp chicken salad.

A blush pink wine, Stoneleigh Bright Marlborough Rosé 2018​ is a blush pink wine with an ABV of 9.5% (compared to Stoneleigh Rosé 2018, ABV 13.5%).

It “boasts bright aromas of red apples and yellow fleshed pear… the vibrant palate is bursting with raspberry and strawberry flavours, and it finishes fresh and light.”

The wine pairs with salmon, or appetisers such as crab cake or sushi.

Stoneleigh Bright is available in BWS stores across Australia, at a recommended retail price of $17.99 ($13 USD).

Low sugar levels

Stoneleigh Bright wines are made using grapes that ripen earlier with a lower brix (brix refers to the sugar level in grapes, which thus can determine the potential alcohol content of a wine).

stoneleigh inset 2

“We’ve done a lot of research to understand the science behind winemaking, and that work has helped us to understand how our grapes develop their flavour throughout the growing season,” ​said Marfell. 

“Once we understood that, it was relatively easy to identify blocks in our vineyards where the grapes develop their full flavour early in the ripening season when their sugar levels are low. 

“The alcohol content in wine is directly related to the amount of sugar in the grapes that we use. For Stoneleigh Bright, we are picking grapes at 17 brix, compared with around 22 brix for our full-strength wines. 

“That lower sugar level means that the wine is fermented with an alcohol content of less than 9.5%. We love this method because it means we can deliver wine that is full of all the flavours and vibrancy people expect from Stoneleigh, with the added advantage of being naturally lower in alcohol.”

New Zealand and lower alcohol wines

In 2014 the New Zealand Winegrowers launched a programme, co-funded by the Ministry for Primary Industries, to boost lighter wines.

As the largest research and development initiative ever undertaken by the industry, Lighter Wines is designed to position New Zealand as number one in the world for high-quality, lower alcohol and lower calorie wines (defined as wines containing less than 10% ABV).

The $16m ($11m USD), seven-year programme​ seeks not only to produce lower alcohol wines; but to focus research on natural production using sustainable viticultural techniques and native yeasts.

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