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Quest for good low-alcohol wine

At least one winemaker is responding to demand for less alcohol and no preservatives, Chris Shanahan writes

President of the NSW Wine Industry Association and vice-president of the Winemakers Federation of Australia David Lowe sees a well-funded anti-alcohol lobby shifting its focus from beer and spirits to wine. The wine industry needs to respond, he believes. And one response should be to produce wines with less alcohol.

''The push for low-alcohol wine is consuming me at present,'' he says. And he's covering the mission personally on two fronts: in a collaborative, so-called Chablis project, working with other Mudgee producers on lower-alcohol, leaner chardonnay styles; and in his Tinja red and white, which are also preservative-free.

Lowe's contribution to the Chablis project is a chardonnay from his Nullo Mountain vineyard, 1100 metres above sea level at nearby Rylstone. The very cool conditions favour the accumulation of flavour at comparatively low sugar (and hence alcohol) levels. Sold under Lowe's Louee Nullo Mount label, the 2011 (a particularly cold year) pushes the concept to the limit - and perhaps beyond the threshold of many drinkers. The searing acidity of the 11 per cent alcohol wine accentuates the intense grapefruit varietal flavour - but also marks it as a wine for future drinking, most likely an outstanding one.

But in warmer regions like Mudgee, unripe flavours present perhaps an even bigger challenge to would-be makers of low-alcohol wine. In warm areas ripeness tends to lag well behind sugar levels. And the winemaking challenges compound when, like Lowe's, the wines are also preservative-free.

Lowe launched his first preservative-free wine, a merlot, five years ago under the Tinja label - named for his Mudgee vineyard, some 700 metres lower than the Nullo Mountain site. The push into lower-alcohol, preservative-free wine puts Lowe's wines in a tiny, developing niche market.

Increasingly sensitive to sulphur himself, Lowe says sulphur-free wines appeal to people with a sulphur allergy, people with bronchial problems, some people recovering from surgery and to a new breed of younger people ''who think they're being poisoned by preservatives''.

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He believes these young people appreciate ''innovation and new things''. ''They're fascinated that a wine can be preservative-free, low in alcohol and still taste decent.''

But he cautions us to note the difference between ''no added preservatives'' and ''preservative free'' messages on labels. The difference is that sulphur occurs naturally and can be present even if a winemaker adds none. ''Preservative free'' wine means literally no sulphur - and that requires fine attention to detail, like selecting fermentation yeasts that don't produce sulphur.

Happily, picking grapes earlier to produce less alcohol provides some of the extra protection a no-sulphur wine requires. ''A low pH means less microbial problems,'' Lowe says. ''But picking early also introduces green-spectrum flavours.''

To mask the green flavours in the white wines, Lowe says he ''squeezes pretty hard on the skins, and includes the pressings''. This lifts the pH slightly, softening the palate, but it boosts colour and flavour, adds texture to the wine and the phenolics are a natural anti-oxidant.

For both reds and whites, oxygen is the enemy. Handling then requires vigilance at every stage. Lowe sees high-quality fruit as the first line of defence - small, thick-skinned berries, hand-picked and transported intact to the winery, resistant to breakage and invasion by microbes and air.

From fermentation until 24 hours before bottling, the wines must remain saturated with carbon dioxide, with zero exposure to air. ''Bottling is the hardest bit'', Lowe says, calculating the ultimate bottling temperature and what pressure the screwcap can stand. ''It's tricky physics,'' he explains, heading off into a discussion of Henry's law (William Henry, 1803), dealing with pressure, gas and solubility of gas in liquid. The subject is too arcane even for a modern wine back label. But Henry's law helped Lowe solve a tricky conundrum in a production chain that had to remain oxygen free.

And after five vintages, we see a really appealing 12.5 per cent alcohol Lowe Tinja Organic Preservative-free Merlot 2012 (reviewed on the facing page). The first preservative-free white also appeals. It's a blend of verdelho and chardonnay, from a Rylstone vineyard at 650 metres, weighing in at just 10 per cent alcohol.

The protective winemaking technique, Lowe says, means they can never be complex wines. But they're vibrant, fresh, clean and a pleasure to drink. And he's promised himself to bring the alcohol levels down by about one percentage point each year - aiming to get the white down to seven or eight per cent.

Chris Shanahan is Canberra Times wine writer, a wine and beer judge, a former liquor retailer and a freelance writer.

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