Dr John Forrest, a PhD in Neurophysiology has atleast 30 years in wine making and has been a pioneer in creation of healthy low alcohol wines in New Zealand, a trend that is increasingly finding millions of followers who are health savvy and seek to find a balance between pleasure and purpose whilst also retaining a sense of wellness in their active lifestyles. This is where alternative viticultural techniques innovated by Forrest Wines has helped reach high levels of excellence and recognition. I had the privilege of meeting him recently and following are the highlights of the interview.

Sumilier: You started off on a career different to wines. Both you and your wife as I understand work in medicine/science. Please talk us through your career transition and what prompted it?

JF: In 1988 I was a frustrated and underfunded, biomedical research scientist. On the personal front, I am lucky to have a smarter and loving wife, Brigid, who challenged me to do something different with my life. My family has historically been involved in farming in Marlborough through many generations and the Marlborough wine industry had then just about started creating international waves. That year was Cloudy Bay’s second vintage. Either ways, I enjoy drinking and collecting wines and it was not something alien to me although I had no formal training or experience around it.

1989 was a turning point for us when we made the decision to leave behind our career in molecular science and medicine to relocate to Marlborough, one that we have never regretted. My wife, Brigid went on in practicing medicine full time – to fund our folly, my mother stepped in to look after our young family while I joined Corbans , in their new winery, for vintage 1989. Simultaneously on the side, I also began conceiving and developing the concepts for the first, of our ultimately seven, vineyards around our home at Renwick. The 1990 vintage saw my move to Grove Mill winery under the generous guidance of Dave Pearce, where I made our first wines – a Rose & Cabernet Merlot . Both wines, over successive years on release, went onto to win trophies as champion wines at New Zealand’s premier wine shows!

Dr John Forrest of Forrest Wines (Photo credit: Forrest Wines)

Sumilier: Where were your first vines planted?

JF: Our first home vineyard was established at Renwick – on the stoney Wairau River terroir.

Sumilier: You also make wines from other regions in New Zealand. Where are they coming from?

FORREST VINEYARDS IN NEW ZEALAND (Photo credits: Forrest wines)

FORREST VINEYARDS IN NEW ZEALAND (Photo credits: Forrest wines)

JF: We make Cabernet Sauvignon & Syrah from Gimblett Gravels Hawkes Bay 400 miles north of Renwick ; Pinot Noir  from Bannockburn Central Otago , 500 miles south ; Pinot Noir, Chardonnay & Pinot Gris from limestone rich sunny terraces in the Waitaki Valley of North Otago.

Sumilier: You have been a pioneer in producing low alcohol wines. I too am a strong follower and supporter of wines which have a health philosophy attached to them. What is the story behind it and how long did it take for your dreams to achieve fruition? Please talk through the changes in the vineyard and/or winemaking technique that you worked on to achieve this. And any major challenge(s) or failure(s) that you had to overcome?

Have you tried The Doctors' Riesling at 9% abv? (Photo credits: Sumi_Sumilier)

Have you tried The Doctors’ Riesling at 9% abv? (Photo credits: Sumi_Sumilier)

JF: My awareness of the commercial potential for lower alcohol wines came about when I made a German styled Kabinett, Riesling at 8.5 % abv. Consumer loved this wine which achieved a lot of recognition in the region; but more than the varietal, what I realised was they enjoyed the idea of good wine at lower alcohol. Initially and especially it were the wine professionals and women who seemed to thoroughly enjoy the concept (but now the idea is being relished across genders and ages!). This kindled my interest and got me really excited to the potential of being able to make a second Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc also to a high quality, but at a significantly less alcohol. Given my scientific background and experience, this was the perfect challenge for me where I could put my training into full practice to create a superior product for the market. The sky was the limit for me and it was a clear market signal that if I succeeded, there was indeed a huge untapped market.

My biggest FAILURE; the first 2 years R&D where I tried to physio-chemically attempted to de- alcoholize wine; the result of my hard work was a thin insipid wine that was tasteless and worthless!

My biggest SUCCESS came out from the failure I went through. To research and go further back into the viticultural levels and investigating on how I can slow down sugar production levels in the vine and thereby the resulting alcohol,l by slowing the grapes normal and natural ripening process. This led me into intense study of the acid levels, flavour development and phenolic ripeness of the vines and further back into the leaves where the process is initiated and then work on a solution from there on. And that is how I have managed to achieve the results I wanted! Basically, of the 15-16 leafs per shoot needed to ripen a bunch of grapes, each of their ability to make sugar is not identical. So if we can identify this, understand when & how to remove key leaves most active during photosynthesis and then remove some of these leaves that have a tendency to make the most of the sugar, you can arrive at a harvest with a normally ripe grape; but with approximately 40 percent less sugar (ie 17 Brix instead of usual 23 Brix). It all sounds easy but to bring into action needed a lot of time to be spent at the vineyard.

Sumilier: That is absolutely amazing. What has given you the most fulfillment in this role?

JF: So many over the nearly 30 years ; put simply just I have enjoyed making a diverse range of premium varietal wines, across 900 miles, to a consistently high standard. It’s this challenge that I love, gets me out of bed in the morning and gives me personal reward. To make consistently high quality wines which is a product of our hard work, our research and innovation.

Sumilier : Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?

JF: With our daughter Beth now in charge of production I’m free to do what I love; think, experiment and try new ideas. So as long as I’ve got my full deck of marbles, I will be doing what I love and what keeps me happy which is being amongst my vineyards & in my winery.

Sumilier: Who do you consider as a role model in this business?

JF: Dr Paul Draper from Ridge winery California.

Sumilier: Your soon to-be-released wines and when you expect them to come into the market.

JF: Two wines we are excited about are

– Doctors lower alcohol Rose 2017 which has been released in 2017

– Doctors lower alcohol Pinot Noir, next 2018 spring.

Forrest Winery with the surrounding vineyards in Marlbourough, New Zealand (Photo credit: Forrest wines)

Forrest Winery with the surrounding vineyards in Marlbourough, New Zealand (Photo credit: Forrest wines)

Seckford agencies are importers of these wines. You can go through their site by clicking here. The wines are also available to buy from Booths and Virgin Wines. Forrest wines not only is a promoter of low alcohol wines but also promoters and sponsors of Forrest Graperide that brings about 30,000 cyclists every year to compete on the Marlbourgh terrain through the vines of Wairau plains ending in at the Forrest Winery where participants get to experience the Portuguese style of crushing grapes by treading with their own feet and enjoying the immersive wine making experience for their “Hundred virgin” wines range. The distance challenge to choose range from 42km to 202 km. If interested in joining the race next year, please check out dates and venue details on Forrest wines also support the Marlbourough and Canterbury Tennis competitions as well every year. To read more on the wines, please click here.