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The new wave of bright, lower-alcohol reds

A refreshing revelation in summer with a vitality all their own, these are the drops helping wine lovers see the light.

By Max Allen
Lower-alcohol red wine

"Buoyancy," says winemaker Tim Bailey. "Red wine with fruit buoyancy. That's what we're trying to achieve. And that means picking the grapes a little earlier. Which means lower alcohol."

Bailey is the winemaker at Leconfield in Coonawarra in South Australia, and the buoyant red he's talking about is a cabernet sauvignon fermented with a few whole bunches of shiraz and cabernet franc. He made it during the 2017 vintage with his mate Dan Redman of the Redman family of local winemakers. It has been released under their Punch Down Boys label, and unlike almost every other Coonawarra cabernet I can think of – certainly in modern times – it sits at a mere 12 per cent alcohol. And it's deliciously, almost dangerously gluggable.

"As winemakers we've always known that, when it's really young, cabernet can have beautiful aromatics and lovely natural-acidity body," he says. "We've just tried to capture that and share it."

The Punch Down Boys are part of a growing trend of Australian winemakers producing lighter, lower-alcohol reds. Where once it was common to find big bruiser shirazes at 15.5 per cent, now it's not uncommon to find them at 12.5. That doesn't look like a big change – it's only three per cent of the total volume of wine in the bottle – but if you think about it, it's actually a reduction of 20 per cent of the total volume of alcohol in that wine, which is a big drop. And this makes a huge difference to everything – from the spectrum of aromas and flavours in the wine to the freshness and body and texture, and, of course, the effect it has on the drinker.

"Lighter, fresher reds are what we like to drink at home," says Tom Belford, who makes wine with his partner, Sally, under the Bobar label in the Yarra Valley. "So that's what we like to make."

Their latest reds, a 2017 petit verdot and a 2017 shiraz viognier, both clock in at 11.5 per cent alcohol and have an entrancing, almost ethereal beauty to them.

"We aren't looking to make low-alcohol wines necessarily," says Belford. "But we are looking to make wines in that lighter, fresher style, without the need to add any extra acid. We like the natural acidity you get in earlier picked grapes. The lower alcohol's just one of the consequences. We could get more richness in the wines by waiting longer to harvest, but it would be at the expense of vitality."

We've been here before. Some of Australia's greatest wines have been surprisingly light: the legendary 1872 Craiglee Hermitage, still drinking well (by all accounts) on its 100th birthday, was only around 10 per cent alcohol. And back in the late 1970s and early '80s, lighter-style cabernets were all the rage – although some winemakers did go to extremes by picking way too early, creating anaemic wines that never lost their green, leafy flavours.

The difference this time around is that the viticulture is better – less-mechanised vineyards, lower yields, more care and attention – the grape varieties being used are often more appropriate to lighter styles of red, and the winemaking is more attuned to avoiding green characters or thinness on the tongue, both risks when you're dealing with grapes earlier picked. Take the wines of Brackenwood Vineyard in the Adelaide Hills. As well as a gorgeous, fragrant, succulent blend of gamay and pinot noir at 12.9 per cent alcohol, in 2017 winemaker Damon Nagel also produced a fine, light, bright red called Rosso that sits pretty at just 11.3 per cent.

"That vintage gave us wines with the lowest alcohols we've ever had," says Nagel. "I planted the gamay on the worst bit of dirt, where shiraz had struggled, but it thrives there, producing grapes with this lovely natural balance of sugar and acid. And for the Rosso we played around with the blend: starting with some really early-picked shiraz that on its own was a bit lacking, then added some pinot for fruit and barbera for a bit of plumpness, and a little bit of skins-fermented chardonnay for tannin and texture."

What's particularly exciting about this trend is just how damn drinkable these lighter styles of red wine are, especially when the weather's warm. They're best enjoyed cool, after an hour in the fridge, say, to highlight all that juicy freshness. And because there's less alcohol in them – perhaps even 20 per cent less than the really big reds that were all the rage in the late 1990s and early 2000s – you can enjoy a glass or two without feeling too groggy.

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  • Author: Max Allen