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Kaddy Exclusives

Duncan Shouler from Giesen explains the secrets behind the world's finest zero-alcohol wine (and much more)

August 3, 2022

Earlier this year, Kaddy was proud to sponsor the first-ever Zero Alcohol Wine Show. Attracting entries from around Australia & New Zealand, this wine show proved that the exploding non-alcoholic wine category is also delivering some really smart wines. Out of all the winners, the Giesen Group (maker of Giesen & Ara wines) was the absolute standout, picking up the trophies for Best White Wine, Best Wine & Best Winemaker.

Today, in a Kaddy-exclusive, Andrew Graham interviewed Giesen Group Chief Winemaker Duncan Shouler to crack open the secrets of what are some of the world's finest zero-alcohol wines. We've deliberately let this chat run long because Duncan is both interesting and a genuine legend of the business. A biologist turned winemaker with decades of experience across Marlborough, Central Otago, California & Bordeaux, his perspective on the science of wine is invaluable (especially as he is part way through his Masters of Wine).

As a result, we not only talk about non-alc wines but also how climate change is affecting Marlborough, the future of NZ Sauvignon Blanc, why you should be drinking more Kiwi Chardonnay and how whisky is the ultimate terroir expression.

We’ve caught Duncan in the midst of a (welcome) wet and cool Marlborough winter:

Duncan Shouler: We've had quite a cold spell for a while, with those beautiful sorts of Marlborough winter days where it starts off freezing cold and then it's just beautiful and sunny (but) we’ve not got long now. I mean, the growing season is not too far away...

Kaddy Community: So it feels like your vintage just rolls from one into another?

It has sort of become more compressed than it used to be, with vintage getting shorter and shorter. This year, the pressure is really on to get the wine out very early, especially after last year when we had a reasonably small crop. And so you're sort of just literally finishing vintage when your first wine is released, and the next thing you know, you're getting ready for the next one. It must mean that somebody's buying the wine!

It’s been a big year for you, winning best winemaker at the Zero Alcohol Wine Show (and best wine with the Ara Zero Sauvignon Blanc). What's the secret to making non-alcoholic wines work?

You're probably going to roll your eyes is really cliche, but the first secret is it does actually start in the vineyards. You’d think that of all of the wines that doesn't start in the vineyard, this would be a strong case. But good zero-alcohol wine is only as good as the quality of what goes into it in the first place.

With the Ara Zero Sauvignon Blanc (pictured below) that won the Zero Alcohol Wine Show trophy, it’s a premium Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc that is de-alcoholised, and then the pieces put back together again. We think that if you really want to capture the flavour of the region, you've got to have a very good example of that in the first place before you get started.

The second piece is technology. We love the spinning cone technology, we think that's very important for our style and our quality. Not saying it's necessarily better than the other technology, but for us, we prefer it. And the key for us is that we own the technology and have it on site. So we have that full control process. We have a team here in the winery that do nothing other than making de-alcoholised wine. So a team of experts who know exactly how to run that piece of machinery, how to process efficiently, and very importantly, get the best quality out of the machine.

Beyond that, there are a couple of bits and pieces you can do. Of course, helping to add body to the wine, you can use malo or extended lees contact prior to the de-alcoholisation. All of those things help. But I would say above all, it's going into the process with a really good baseline.

So you’re talking about putting Sauv through malo to try and give it body, is that one of the things you'd think about doing?

We have we did a bit of that this year. Now it's actually twofold there because when you’re taking alcohol away, you lose the sweetness of alcohol and you lose body, but the sweetness is also not balancing the acidity anymore. So you do take a bit of acidity out, which is something we would certainly do here in Marlborough, where we’re not unused to taking acid out because we are in such a cold climate. We just take a little bit more out of the wine that goes to the zero alcohol process to balance it out.

One way of doing that, of course, is malolactic fermentation, which helps reduce the total acidity, and the result is more lactic acid which is a softer, creamier acidity. The thing we have to be very careful though with Sauvignon Blanc is that we don’t want the butterscotch creaminess.

Does that mean you're not picking the fruit slightly riper?

I'd say there is definitely an effort to get the fruit as ripe as can be. But ultimately, we'll pick it whenever we think the fruit quality is best. So we kind of, we take a philosophy where if we're picking for zero alcohol wine, we pick it basically at the same time would if we were making a premium Sauv. We do want to have lower natural acidity, but we also want a little bit of the ‘green’ character there as well. So not too far with the ripeness that we lose some of the Marlborough capsicum or tomato bush along the way.

So far, you've got three whites and a Merlot in the Giesen range. Is there going to be a holy grail of a de-alcoholised Pinot Noir?

I say never say never because I've actually had a trial with Pinot Noir. I was scared because, as we all know, Pinot Noir can be one of the most frustrating and, at the same time, joyful experiences from growing and winemaking perspectives and consuming. And so I was pretty scared that you're taking this amazing variety - a delicate variety - and putting it through, which is the best case scenario, a process that is still quite intense and quite disruptive. But I was pleasantly surprised that it retained its Pinosity and varietal characteristics.

One of the nice things about Pinot is that it has slightly lower and softer tannins. And one of the challenges I have with Merlot is when you take away the alcohol, you see the acidity and the tannins. But with Pinot's softer tannins, you have a softer baseline. So in short, we've done some trials, and we're happy with the trials… but we’ll wait and see!

Going forward that for Giesen, is non-alc wine going to be a big part of what you do? Or is it more like just a complement to the range?

I think it's going to be the former thing. it's already becoming quite a significant part of what we do. We're seeing a lot of growth in the USA, we're seeing great growth in Australia. There are other markets out there, China looks like it's really going to explode in that space as well. But mostly, it's the USA driving the growth. And we've found ourselves in a great position where we're the number one selling premium zero-alcohol wine in the USA, the number two zero alcohol rosé. So the aspiration is to be the premium zero alcohol wine of choice worldwide. We'll always be making the classics - you know, Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah and everything else. But zero alcohol will continue to grow.

Speaking of Sauv, there is a trend perceived to be going away from that classical ‘passionfruit and gooseberry’ Marlborough style. Do you think that's changed a little bit?

I think the style is changing. I think we're seeing evolution. I think that, like most regions, we are starting to see impacts of climate change. We are warming up; although days like today, you wouldn't believe it, but we are warming up. And I've seen over probably the last 10 or 15 years we're picking we're picking probably a month earlier. We're lucky that we've started off in a very cool region, we've got quite a bit of room to move, but it's still going to have an impact on the flavour profile. We're getting riper, more tropical pineapple characters, mango and less of the passionfruit and blackcurrant and tomatoes. But that's probably mostly in the Wairau Valley. What I think is exciting is when you look at the Awatere Valley in the south, which has a higher altitude, those wines really remind me of the classic Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc from 20 years ago. So I think it's going to be managing the style and managing consumer expectations over time.

What do you think is going to be the next big thing for Marlborough in the future? You’ve had great success with Syrah. Do you think that has more scope?

Yeah, I’m probably a bit biased as I love Syrah. I think when you see some of the top sites in the Southern Walleys with lovely clay soil and north-facing slopes that are getting warmer and warmer. They're making true world-class cold climate Syrah, and I think from a very high-end premium perspective, it is a fantastic opportunity for the region. Obviously we know about Hawke's Bay and Waiheke Islands making some great Syrah, but Marlborough is probably overlooked for the variety that I think the potential is, is massive. Beyond that, Sauvignon is always going to be there and always going to drive what we do, but we also don't want to be a monoculture. So we do need to have other things that keep people interested. Chardonnay is doing extremely well, making fantastic wines. In terms of other varieties that are perhaps a little bit less on the radar, I think Albarino is actually my favourite. A few producers are making a lovely style of wine here.

You're in the middle of your Masters of Wine. How do you juggle it?

Yeah, it's been really, really tricky. The last two years, it's mostly been on hold for me because just the inability to travel, and a lot of the seminars and courses and whatnot are in Australia. I was lucky I sat stage one the first time in 2019 and passed. But on stage two, I started studying and then, before you know it, it's March 2020 and everything is shut down. So pretty much since then, I've been just sort of trying to keep fresh and going back onto the program this year.

The last two years of closed borders doesn’t help anything

It is a challenge even when the borders are open because we don't have easy access to great wines from around the world. So the key is finding other people who are either on the MW program or getting tasting groups and taste with other people as much as you can. But it's a challenge. I think if you're based in London, you're surrounded by (great wines of the world) every day, and it is probably more accessible. But yeah, I suppose it's part of the fun, I suppose, trying to get hold of these wines!

Trinity Hill's multi-trophy winner

We talked about Chardonnay - what's the forecast for New Zealand Chardonnay, amongst other things?

I think the future is very, very bright in terms of quality perspective and how the wines are perceived overseas. I think at the International Wine Challenge Trinity Hill picked up the award for Best International Chardonnay which is a big award. And it's not the first time that Kiwi Chardonnay has won on that level - they’re great, great wines. And I think we've got all the parts and little bits of the puzzle to make glacier and then you've got cool climate grapefruit expression, we have access to really high-quality French oak (even though it’s getting more expensive). We have everything we need to make world-class Chardonnay. The big question is in terms of sales success and that's where it gets difficult. Despite the success of these wines, how do you sell them in the top restaurants in New York, London, Paris and Sydney when you've got great Burgundy, Tasmania and California to compete with?

I think that almost in a sort of a strange way, we probably have a little bit of climate on our side where we are starting off with a very cool climate. And as we get warmer, even in 20 years' time, we're probably still gonna be much more appropriate for Chardonnay than in some of the other regions.

What's the variety that you get most excited about?

A good question. I said I love Syrah. I think that when I see it get ripe in Marlborough, it’s a wonderful thing. It's difficult. It's very, very hard to get right here and really you need to crop it painfully low. Probably most of all, it would have to be Pinot Noir. It’s a fantastic variety to make and grow. One of the great things with Pinot Noir is that you can frustrate. You can see it in the vineyard and it can look fantastic on the vine and then it can be disappointing. Or conversely, it might not be great looking Pinot but it turns into bowls in something really special. So because of that, I think that it would be Pinot Noir because you're always learning every year. You're always learning about the variety and how expresses the soil, the climate and the vintage. You can never stop learning. So that's the exciting thing for me.

Last question. And this is what we always like asking - what's in your fridge at home? What do you drink at home?

I'm a real sucker for really good value Rhones. Really good fashion, sort of slightly rustic, ripe, multi-varietal reds and whites. And I love Chablis and it's just a wonderful expression of the soil, expression of limestone and expression of the variety with lovely acidity. So those are two and I love to drink as much as possible. Especially with doing MW I try and drink something different as much as I can.

The Isle of Islay

What about else? Beer? Gin? That's usually how winemakers drink?

I love a craft beer. I don't drink too much hazy. But I like craft beer. I love scotch whisky. I grew up in Scotland for a number of years and dad was a big whiskey fan. So probably inherited that, especially Islay malt. I think if you want to talk terroir, the smell of a great highlight Islay malt is probably as good as it gets. You get off the ferry and that is what the island of Islay smells like. So I love that.

Thanks Duncan. Hopefully, we'll be seeing you at some point soon in Australia?

Sounds good. Yeah, it’s going to be quite funny getting on an international flight again as it’s been so long - well over a year. I’m looking forward to it!

Discover the Giesen range on the Kaddy Marketplace now.

Image source: Instagram