Not too much of a good thing

Late last year, New Zealand Wine Growers announced a research programme into high quality, lower calorie and lower alcohol ''lifestyle'' wines facilitated by a new Primary Growth Partnership between the wine industry and the Ministry for Primary Industries.

Some people raised their eyebrows, considering ''lifestyle'' wines at present on the market more of a marketing gimmick aimed at young women rather than serious wine lovers who advocate drinking good wine but a little less, if you want to restrict the quantity of alcohol you drink.

Steve Green, of Carrick, in Central Otago, chairman of New Zealand Wine Growers, said the research programme was as much a journey as an end.

They could see a broader spectrum of benefits than just the 7% sauvignon blancs at present on the market, which rely on picking grapes greener so the wines have little flavour or leaving residual sugar in the wine.

''We also could see the benefits of slightly lower alcohol in pinots, getting down from 14 to 13. You get all those sort of things in research,'' he said.

Many wines, both whites and reds, now declare 14% or more alcohol because winemakers wait for flavours to develop in the grapes before picking.

Sugar levels continue to rise, and because sugar is converted to alcohol by yeast in the winemaking process, the higher sugars produce more alcohol and the wines tend to be big and hot.

If flavours in the grapes could develop before the sugars rose too high, well flavoured and structured wines could be made with a degree or two lower alcohol, a benefit for everyone, especially wine drinkers.

''A lot of the research will be vineyard-focused, for the vineyard to try and get an expression of flavour without the higher sugars is a series of research projects; it may not actually turn up anything,'' he said.

But beyond the spin-off for other wines, the New Zealand industry aims to be a leader in the production of such ''lifestyle'' wines. A great idea, as long as they have flavour and charm.

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