The programme is the largest research and development effort ever undertaken by New Zealand’s wine industry, which has invested £4.35 million in the seven-year project.
The New Zealand government has chipped in £4 million, and the team is gauging the UK market to see how interested UK retailers would be in listing New Zealand wines at around 8% abv to 10% abv.
But Villa Maria has stolen a march on rivals by launching the Villa Maria Lighter Private Bin range – and it promises the wines will be of a similar quality to its classic 13% abv wines.
UK market manager Paul Raper told OLN: “Previously low alcohol wines haven’t been that good. We are trying to provide lower alcohol but maintain the quality. We have access to the best vineyard sites and grapes, so we can maintain that quality without compromising. We will use slightly early picked grapes and carefully selected yeasts and some extended skin contact to absorb a bit more flavour.
“It will be small initially but we expect low alcohol wines to gain some traction in the coming years. We would expect them to become increasingly popular. Villa Maria always tries to be early to market.”
Fiona Mottershaw, brand manager for Villa Maria at UK distributor Hatch Mansfield, said the wines will sell at the same price as the classic private bin wines.
There will be a Sauvignon Blanc, a Pinot Grigio and a rosé, launching this month.
Mottershaw said: “We are hoping to have national distribution by the end of the year. Big retailers have commitments to strip units of alcohol from the market.
“We think we will cater to a demand here. They will be perfect lunchtime wines.”
Wines get a tax break at 5.5% abv but they have failed to take off due to the artificial, dealcoholised taste.
“A tax break would be nice at 9% abv – that would definitely drive innovation,” said Mottershaw.
The New Zealand Ministry for Primary Industries said: “The challenge is not just producing high-quality lower alcohol and lower calorie wines but producing them naturally, making New Zealand the go to country for high quality, lower alcohol and lower calorie wines.
“The research will focus on natural production using sustainable viticultural techniques and native yeasts unique to New Zealand, giving wineries a point of difference to existing processing methods and other products on the market.
“The programme will develop a number of viticulture and winery tools that will enable the industry to service the rapidly growing market for lower-calorie and lower-alcohol wines with high quality, naturally-produced options.”