Australian wine industry seeks lower alcohol wine

A growing push for lower alcohol wines comes from many directions: the anti-alcohol lobby; public health advocates; a desire to reduce costs in markets that tax wine on alcohol content; to avoid the heat and astringency of excessive alcohol; in response to certain wine critics, particularly in the United Kingdom; and to cater for some consumers favouring a less intoxicating beverage.

Australia’s peak industry body, Wine Australia, backs the move, saying on its website, “The wine industry is developing and evaluating strategies to reduce the alcohol/ethanol content of wine without compromising quality”.

It lists several ways for winemakers to bring down alcohol levels: picking grapes at lower sugar levels (lower sugar means less alcohol), removing sugar from grape juice, removing alcohol from finished wine and persuading yeasts to produce less alcohol from a given amount of sugar.

The Australian Wine Research Institute currently uses traditional breeding selection techniques to develop these yeasts. But it also genetically modifies yeasts to achieve the same results for research purposes, if not in commercial trials or production. This research, it believes, will help researchers understand what yeasts are capable of and aid traditional breeding approaches.

Wine Australia concludes, “The immediate challenge for the wine sector is to make ‘low-alcohol producing yeasts’ using traditional breeding and selection processes that are acceptable to the consumer and which can be adopted by winemakers. Considerable commercial advantage will benefit the category or country which delivers the successful outcome first”.

However, Mudgee winemaker David Lowe, an advocate of low alcohol wines, believes the industry “must have the debate now about genetically engineered yeast”. He says the AWRI’s extensive work in this area has already produced yeast capable of making 8.5 per cent alcohol wine. He believes if Australia adopts GM yeasts, “Europe may use it as a trade barrier. But Canada and the USA will most likely be OK with it”.

But winemaking consultant and former CEO of Domain Chandon Australia, Dr Tony Jordan counters with, “The day we allow genetically modified material into the winery is the day we might as well become Coca-Cola. That’s definitely the beginning of the end, it’s not terroir-based technology. I believe we need to be a bit a-technical here and wait for traditional selection techniques to come through. Some people say that if we don’t explore GM then the wine industry will be left behind – well, so be it”.

Jordan believes viticultural changes in the last twenty years account for increasing alcohol content in Australian wines. He says new canopy management techniques turned our vines into “sugar factories”. “Perhaps we should be looking for ways to reverse that and still get ripe tannins and fruit flavours”, he argues.

And that’s the conundrum for vignerons in Australia’s hot, dry climate – achieving flavour and tannin ripeness in grapes before sugar levels soar. Even so-called cool areas like Canberra struggle with this – or we did until grapes ripened at comparatively low sugar levels – meaning lower alcohol – in the cold 2011 and 2012 seasons.

Seasonal temperature variations aside, however, it should be possible, as Tony Jordan urges, to power down the sugar factories. In Margaret River, for example, Vanya Cullen’s biodynamic vineyards produced the profound Diana Madeline cabernet blend at just 12 and 13 per cent alcohol respectively in the 2009 and 2010 vintages. This is world class, fully ripe wine. But it’s significantly lower in alcohol than the 14.5 per cent or so of other top Australian cabernet sauvignons.

Whether or not all consumers can discern, or even care, about the difference is another matter. In Reducing alcohol levels in wine, an April 2012 fact sheet for winemakers and grape growers, the AWRI reported, “The link between alcohol and consumer preference varies across consumer groups. In recent studies, winemaker preference did not relate to alcohol concentration. While almost 40% of wine consumers in Australia and more than 50% of wine consumers in China reported lower levels of liking for higher alcohol wines, with reference to hotness and bitterness”.

In the same publication, the AWRI advises vignerons how to reduce alcohol – starting with viticulture, then drilling down through yeast selection, blending lower and higher alcohol components, enzyme additions, fermenter design, physical removal of sugar or alcohol and loss of alcohol by evaporation during fermentation and maturation.

While physical removal offers the biggest reductions in alcohol, it almost invariably means a significant loss of flavour. But big reductions probably appeal to a small minority of drinkers, not mainstream consumers.

I suspect the main game will be shifting wines down a couple of percentage points, say moving reds from 14 to 15 per cent to 12 or 13 per cent in cooler areas, a tad higher in hotter regions – levels that may be achievable largely in the vineyard. The caveat, as Canberra’s two recent cold vintages indicate, is that we can’t totally overcome seasonal variations.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2012
First published 20 June 2012 in The Canberra Times