Patrick Materman, Pernod-Ricard NZ

"Low alcohol wines are receiving medals"

Tuesday January 16 2018 by Vitisphere

Patrick Materman, chief winemaker at Pernod Ricard NZPatrick Materman, chief winemaker at Pernod Ricard NZ
Reducing alcohol intake often comes high on the list of New Year’s resolutions. But does that automatically translate to growth potential for low alcohol wines? Four years ago, the category became the subject of the largest research and development initiative ever undertaken by the New Zealand wine industry. Vitisphere caught up with Patrick Materman, chief winemaker at Pernod Ricard NZ, to take stock of progress so far.

The Lighter Wines Programme is designed to position New Zealand as Number 1 in the world for high-quality, lower alcohol and lower calorie wines.  To what extent would you say this goal has been achieved so far?

Since the advent of this programme, the wine quality and market positioning of these wines has improved dramatically. There are low alcohol wines consistently receiving medals in the same wine show categories as their full-strength counterparts – verification that there is no compromise in quality. Consumers are gaining confidence in being able to buy quality low alcohol wine, and retail wine buyers in Australia, Canada, UK and Sweden are showing increased interest in the category and see New Zealand as the favoured supplier of these wines. While it is still early days for our export markets, early signs are positive and we are confident that the cool-climate, aromatic and fresh wine styles New Zealand is renowned for is a great starting point in crafting low alcohol wines.      

What has been the take-up of the project within the NZ wine industry?

There has been strong take-up, with most of the key industry players signed up as Grantors and actively involved in the project. Beyond just the Grantors, the information from the Lighter Wines Programme also becomes available for all NZW levy payers.   

The aim is to produce wines naturally lower in alcohol. What techniques does Pernod-Ricard use to achieve this in the vineyard?

We harvest earlier when the sugar levels are lower to achieve a naturally lower alcohol potential, rather than relying on technologies to remove alcohol. Site selection is a key component where we target areas which show a riper flavour profile at lower grape sugar levels. We have also done work with canopy manipulation – reducing canopy height to delay sugar accumulation and drive greater physiological ripeness at harvest.

Have new techniques been developed or were existing tools suitable?

The reduced canopy height is something we’ve gained through the programme, but many tools already existed with us through our internal research; particularly around generating high thiol aroma levels (ripe grapefruit and passionfruit characters) at a lower brix level.

In the winery, what changes have been made to accommodate the project and achieve the desired results?

Within the winery, (as in the vineyard), our internal research has led us to understand the trigger points to elevate ripe thiol aromas, giving a ripe flavour spectrum to the wine which belies the low harvest sugar levels. We have also adopted yeast strains which lower the high natural acidity in this early harvested fruit. The fermentation is stopped to leave some residual sugar which enhances palate weight, but this is balanced with natural acidity and slightly higher dissolved CO2 levels at bottling giving a perception of dryness. The earlier harvesting of fruit for these products works well from a winery intake perspective, by reducing the peak intake days further into vintage.

Which techniques have proved the most effective in reducing alcohol levels?

We have chosen to use early harvest to reduce alcohol levels rather than adopt alcohol removal technology which we believe strips other important components from the wine.

How would you describe the results so far?

We have been very pleased with the resulting wines, making Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris and Rose under the Brancott Estate, Stoneleigh and Montana Brands. The wines are a ‘Lighter’ expression; clean and fresh and provide a very valid alternative to their full-strength counterparts. The wines have been entered in many wine shows in New Zealand and internationally and have gained their fair share of medals within full-strength categories – a great endorsement that quality has not been compromised in making a lower alcohol offering.

Do you consider there is still room for improvement?

Like any wine styles we have ambitions to improve over time. We have seen it to date since first launching Brancott Estate Flight, and I believe there are still opportunities to increase palate weight and textural interest. We’ve yet to launch a Lighter red wine and this remains an exciting challenge for us.

Do you have any idea of the cost of this project for Pernod Ricard?

Beyond a Grantor’s fee we make significant in-kind contribution, from fruit through to personnel and marketing expertise.

What new wines have come out of the project?

Stoneleigh Lighter has been launched since the start of this project four years ago and draws on what we have learnt from the project. Brancott Estate and Montana Affinity were already on the market prior to the Project starting, but have also since gained from the Project.

What seems to be the real sweet spot in terms of alcohol content, both from a winemaking and consumer perspective?

From a winemaking perspective 9.0 to 9.5 seems to be a sweet spot – significantly reduced in alcohol, but retaining high quality and a perception of ripeness. From a consumer point of view around 5% might be more desirable, but this is a significant challenge to achieve naturally without compromising wine quality.

Since the programme was officially launched in March 2014, global demand for lower alcohol wines seems to have gained traction. Would you agree?

Yes, it has coincided with very strong consumer trends around health and wellness, and moderation. Furthermore, as the NZ category continues to grow in strength, and brands are being further established, there is greater potential for the lighter counterpart. One of the barriers to purchasing lower alcohol wines was that the taste was often compromised. As we have learned more about the winemaking process, we have been able to retain the full flavour profile at a lower alcohol level and consumers are starting to realise they can have all the health benefits without compromise.

How are Pernod Ricard’s lower alcohol wines marketed?

Our sales networks are all market specific, but in most markets, the lower alcohol wines are sold alongside the full-strength wines of the same varietal. 

Have sales volumes met expectations?

We have seen a growing interest in the category over the past 4 years which benefits our established brands. There is a wealth of information on the category now – NZ Winegrowers has conducted extensive research on the category with regards to the consumer and markets with the most potential. They have met with key buyers in the target markets of Australia, Canada, UK and Sweden, and we’re starting to see the effects of this work.

How do you see the way forward now?

To further progress the category, with industry research and collaboration to drive wine quality and marketing opportunities. I believe creating tasting opportunities to give consumers the confidence in what they are buying is also a great way to grow the category.


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