For Dr John Forrest, the prospect of a breakthrough quickened when he read a study by Professor Hans Schultz of Geisenheim University. The neurophysiologist-turned-winemaker was on a mission to develop that holy grail – a wine that is low in alcohol, dry, and actually tastes like wine.
After a few failed experiments in his New Zealand winery, he had a hypothesis and was driving his staff mad with a series of vineyard trials that involved picking leaves from different parts of the plant at different times. A single line in that study encouraged him to continue forging ahead.
At 63, with grey hair, a ready grin and the sturdy hulk of a former rugby lock, you’d never guess Dr Forrest as a global pioneer in lighter-alcohol wines, but that is precisely what the New Zealander has become. Supermarkets are clamouring to buy his lower-alcohol products. But Dr Forrest’s ambition stretches well beyond the confines of his 160-acre Marlborough estate.
He thinks New Zealand can become “the go-to country” for quality lower-alcohol wines. He’s given the intellectual property in his viticultural discoveries to a big, government-funded New Zealand Lighter Wines project, and is helping others get it right, as he did with the country’s screw cap initiative in the 2000s. And the big secret? It sounds too simple to be possible, but it’s all down to those leaves.
Dr Forrest’s journey began by accident in 2008 when he made an “unashamed copy” of the famous riesling made by Ernie Loosen in Germany. Like its waltzing Mosel counterpart, the antipodean riesling had low alcohol and it wasn’t dry – not, then, a fashionable style, but one Dr Forrest admired. He was struck by a recurrent theme in the feedback. “Women in particular were saying how nice it was to have a lower-alcohol wine.” One Friday night, as he lay in bed, he turned to his wife, Brigid, and said, “I reckon there’s a real opportunity of commercial success with a lower-alcohol sauvignon blanc. If I can perfect it, I’ll make you a rich woman.”
If you have ever tried to find a drink that tastes like wine but which has zero, or approaching zero, alcohol (and believe me, I have) then you will know that such a thing does not exist. The contribution alcohol makes to the flavour, and the viscosity it brings to the feel, have so far been impossible to replicate when the alcohol is not there.
Dr Forrest has succeeded in doing the next best thing. He makes a delicious (almost) dry sauvignon blanc and an upbeat (pinot noir and arneis) rosé that, at 9.5% alcohol by volume, are both lighter in alcohol and uncompromised in flavour.
His newest creation – which he is still perfecting – is a pinot noir (also 9.5%, and hopefully arriving in Booths and Waitrose in August) that has a joyful lift and a soar of rose petals, wild raspberries and strawberries.
It took him a while to get there. At first he “wasted a couple of years trying to de-alcoholise wine, or remove sugar” using existing techniques. “I also mucked around with unripe grapes, trying to enhance the flavours using different yeasts or clever blending.” In both cases the result was the same: thin, green-tasting, and watery. “It didn’t cut the mustard.”
Dr Forrest moved to Marlborough with his wife – a GP obstetrician – after packing in a career as a researcher in medical neuroscience. His PhD was on the acetylcholine receptor, which is involved in sending nerve signals to the muscles to tell them to contract, and he’d had some great positions, but he wasn’t enjoying “the life of the underfunded researcher.”
There wasn’t a subject crossover with his new life, but the discipline and deep thought of the scientific approach came into play. Making lower-alcohol wine depends on paring everything down – getting the right clones of the right grapes in the right microclimate and on the right soil. These are factors everyone looks at. Dr Forrest’s big discovery came when he began to wonder if he could change the way in which grapes ripen.
In particular, could he slow the rate at which a plant makes sugar (which is converted into alcohol during fermentation) while allowing the grape to continue to ripen in other ways – dropping acidity, changing colour, accumulating flavour and reaching phenolic maturity (of the tannins in the pips and skin)? “I had believed these factors were inextricably linked, marching on together as the season progressed. But that proved not to be true.”
The clever detail was realising that, as leaves grow at different times, from spring to autumn, they might not all photosynthesise in the same way. By targeting and plucking the youngish leaves he refers to as the “equivalent of millennials” he could reduce the pace of sugar accumulation without impacting on other forms of ripening. One catch: the plucking has to happen at the right time – “go in too early and everything stays unripe”.
This method enabled him to grow grapes that had 40-45 per cent less sugar than a control, but which tasted ripe in every other way. Add a few tricks in the winery – and these he is keeping under his hat (he’s not daft) – and he had a convincing 9.5% almost-dry sauvignon blanc. To make the wine commercial – no wine drinker would pay the cost of all that faffy specialist leaf-picking – he needed another brainwave. This one arrived in the shower and involved a tweak to the winter pruning that enables the right leaves to be machine-picked.
But he’s shared the information. What about making Brigid as rich as he promised? Dr Forrest laughs. “We’re doing all right.” If it continues to go well, he might buy a new fishing boat. He talks of 30-kilo tuna, and a cave in the Marlborough Sounds that is full of lobsters “with claws as thick as my wrist” – he extends a meaty arm.
There’s one big question. What are the chances Dr Forrest could solve the great zero-alcohol wine conundrum? He looks cagey. “I’m thinking about it. I have an approach that I think could get to a wine that’s acceptable at zero alcohol. I don’t want to say any more. I’m just thinking about it. At the moment.”
Wines of the week
(9.5%, M&S, £11)
An exuberant white made by Dr John Forrest that fair fizzes with elderflower, passion fruit and sherbetty lemon and lime flavours. If 9.5% doesn’t sound that low, bear in mind that a white at, say, 13.5% has 42% more alcohol in every glass.
(9.5%, Tesco, £9; Waitrose, £8.99)
Here’s another of Dr Forrest’s 9.5% sauvignons. I’ll admit it tastes so similar to the M&S wine that I’m not sure that I can tell the difference – and this one’s £2 cheaper.
(8.5%, Sainsbury’s, £7)
The wine that inspired Dr Forrest’s journey into lower alcohol is a classic of its kind. It tastes of ripe nectarines and sweet apple sorbet, and it’s medium dry (there are 44 grams of sugar in every litre of wine).