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By Karen MacNeil
December 1, 2016

The words “low-alcohol wine” make anyone who has ever tasted one, shudder. The wines are that bad.


But maybe not for very much longer.


As most wine drinkers know, the high alcohol levels of some wines have been a point of nagging controversy in the wine industry. Critics say that winemakers should just pick grapes less ripe (when they have less sugar that can be turned into alcohol). But lots of winemakers say it’s not as simple as that. Some flavors, they point out, only develop after a grape gets fully ripe. If you want the flavor, you just have to put up with the alcohol.


Recently, scientists in New Zealand and separately in Italy may have discovered the ultimate have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too answer. It’s called an antitranspirant spray, and it’s sprayed on vines to interrupt normal photosynthesis.


The spray itself is a natural organic compound extracted from pine resin. Historically, it’s been used to protect newly transplanted plants from drying out too quickly. The compound breaks down after three to four weeks in the presence of ultraviolet light so none of the compound appears in the final wine.


During one set of experiments, researchers used the spray at veraison (when red grapes begin to turn from green to red and “white” grapes begin to turn from green to yellow). The spray appears to have blocked the pores on the underside of the leaves, resulting in less loss of water. The flavors of the grapes continued to ripen, although the sugar didn’t accumulate in the normal fashion. In New Zealand  the result was sauvignon blanc that could be picked early (at 10% alcohol) but that tasted perfectly ripe–floral and tropical—but not green.


The experiments are part of a $17 million program called the Lifestyle Wines Partnership Research Programme, co-funded by the New Zealand government and the New Zealand Winegrowers association.