Check the fine print on a label of The Doctors' Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand and you'll notice something unusual. It's the alcohol: just 9.5 per cent by volume. That's well below the 13 to 14.5 per cent of every other selection in this summer-friendly New Zealand roundup and is virtually unheard of for dry sauvignon blanc. Most remarkable, the wine is very fine, hardly lacking in the flavour depth that alcohol helps provide, though it's undeniably light.
Its curious name might lead a few people to speculate that it's endorsed by the New Zealand Medical Association or some such thing. Not at all. But it is enthusiastically recommended by two doctors, John and Brigid Forrest. The couple cheerfully left careers in molecular biology and medicine to start Forrest, a dynamic estate in the Marlborough region on the South Island.
The Forrest product range spans several tiers and The Doctors' brand represents their passion for experimentation – both with offbeat grape varieties, such as gros manseng and arneis, as well as with cutting-edge vineyard and winery practices. This sauvignon blanc is a compelling entry in the burgeoning global market for low-calorie wines, a trend I chronicled in a column more than a year ago. That market has spawned an array of brands, including The Skinny Vine, Jacob's Creek Cool Harvest and McWilliams Harmony from Australia, Invivo Belle and Kim Crawford First Pick from New Zealand, Skinnygrape from Peller in Niagara and Girl Go Lightly and Gallo Summer Red from California.
As you might guess, some of these Château Slim Fast offerings are about as satisfying as de-alcoholized beer. In fact, some are made in similar fashion – fermented normally and then subjected to an alcohol-removal process. Others are harvested earlier than normal in the growing season, before grapes have achieved high levels of sugar (which is converted to alcohol during fermentation). The latter process tends to yield high-acid, harsh-tasting juice – like sparkling wine only without the bubbles and yeasty complexity.
The third main way to end up with less alcohol is to arrest fermentation before the yeast finishes its job of mopping up the fruit sugar. In that case you end up with noticeably sweet wine, and only a minority of grape varieties – generally ones with inherently high acid, to balance the sugar – tend to succeed in this category. Riesling and chenin blanc are classic examples. By contrast, The Doctors' sauvignon blanc is bone dry.
John Forrest assures that he manages to keep the alcohol down without recourse to these straightforward tricks. Instead, he says, he employs a proprietary system of selective leaf removal, which slows the plant's ability to photosynthesize sugars.
He says the surgical pruning technique impedes sugar production by 30 per cent between the onset of ripening (a midsummer stage known as veraison) and harvest. Crucially, this means he can let the grapes hang on the vine for the standard duration – in other words, not pick early – "and thus allow the normal flavour biosynthesis to occur." The system sounds simple, he added, "but [it has been] seven years in the making to achieve."
Even distinguished British wine writer Jancis Robinson has praised Forrest's low-cal sauvignon blanc. Which would suggest that the prognosis is pretty good for The Doctors'.
Forrest Estate The Doctors' Sauvignon Blanc 2012 (New Zealand)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $19.95
Unless you're specifically looking to get a buzz on, this 9.5-per-cent alcohol white lacks little that you would not find in a fine New Zealand sauvignon blanc. The body's more delicate, to be sure, but there's satisfaction in the lively flavours, which hint at lemon, grapefruit, grass and – with applause from my pepper-loving palate – jalapeno. Racy and bracing in a good way, especially as a well-chilled refresher in the summer heat. $21 in B.C., various prices in Alberta.
Clos Henri Sauvignon Blanc 2012 (New Zealand)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $28.95
It seems to me that it's mostly the Europeans who pride themselves on crafting white wines with tension. They have a word for that high-strung acidity: nervosité. Here's a wine with that sort of electric zing, which I adore. But wait, it's from Clos Henri, the New Zealand outpost of the family that owns Henri Bourgeois, a prominent producer in Sancerre in the Loire Valley, where sauvignon blanc is as wonderfully tense as it comes. It's bone-dry, light-medium-bodied and tangy, more citrus than vegetables. Then you sense it – the white pepper and stone-like mineral quality. Lovely for light salads. Available in Ontario.
Lawson's Dry Hills Gewurztraminer 2011 (New Zealand)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $19.95
Marlborough, the vast plain that set the course for New Zealand's exuberant way with sauvignon blanc, has a wonderful secret. It's called gewurztraminer. The region can produce lush, succulent examples worthy of the flattering adjective "Alsatian." This one's delectably plump in that way, with big lychee and spicy ginger flavours that coat the palate. The 14.5-per-cent alcohol peeks through ever so slightly, a sign this white achieved substantial ripeness in the vineyard. Try it with cheeses, liver pâtés or spicy Asian fare. Available in Ontario.
Astrolabe Pinot Noir 2011 (New Zealand)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $24.95
Medium-bodied yet dense with cherry and raspberry fun, this pinot comes across like a New Zealand version of Pommard, with firm backbone to the velvety texture, only with more of a candied profile to the fruit. There's a hint of smoke in there as well. Treat this fine red to some duck or fatty pork chops. Various prices in B.C. private wine shops and Alberta.
Bel Echo Pinot Noir 2012 (New Zealand)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $22.95
Like the Clos Henri above, this Marlborough pinot is made by the French family behind Sancerre producer Henri Bourgeois. The texture's supple, yet with a satisfying chalky quality in there, too. Raspberries and currants mingle with violets and hints of earthy beetroot and spice. Very nice – especially for grilled salmon or pork tenderloin. Available in Ontario.
Momo Pinot Gris 2012 (New Zealand)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $19.95
Momo means "offspring" in Maori, fitting for this relatively affordable brand extension from Seresin Estate, the biodynamic winery owned by cinematographer Michael Seresin. This organic white is medium-bodied and aromatic, with good depth of flavour suggesting pear and flowers. Great texture. You almost want to chew the wine, though I'd recommend chewing medium-weight fish or chicken prepared on the grill instead. Available in Ontario.
Sileni Cellar Selection Sauvignon Blanc 2013 (New Zealand)
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $17.95
Classically punchy Marlborough sauvignon blanc flavours of gooseberry and grapefruit meet the equally classic waft of freshly mown golf course. Good balance. Nice as an aperitif or with a salad of asparagus topped with crumbled goat cheese. $15.49 in B.C. (discounted from $16.99 till Aug. 2), various prices in Alta., $13.49 in Man., $18.99 in Nfld.
Stoneleigh Sauvignon Blanc 2013 (New Zealand)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $17.55
Light-bodied, crisp tropical-fruit punch with a fistful of grass – this is textbook New Zealand sauvignon blanc and a good vintage for a huge, familiar brand. Deftly balanced between sweet fruit and herbal lift. Discounted to $15.95 in Ontario till July 20, $16.99 in B.C. (discounted from $17.99 till Aug. 2), various prices in Alta., $18.99 in Sask., $17.99 in Man., $15.95 in Que. (discounted from $17.95), $19.99 in N.B., $19.99 in N.S., $19.95 in Nfld., $19.95 in PEI.