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Wine for (early) birds

Published:  18 January, 2007

Foster's has just launched two brand new A$17 wines here in Australia: a 2005 South Australian Chardonnay and a Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc under the Early Harvest label. As the name suggests, the wines were made from early-harvested grapes. Both are low in alcohol - 9.5% - but that's not how they will be marketed. Oh no. The angle is that they are naturally lower in calories', and the target market is women aged between 27 and 44' - the Desperate Housewives generation.

Early Harvest is a local version of the 2004 White Lie Early Season Chardonnay, launched in the US in April by the Californian arm of Fosters' global empire. Both brands have the tagline created by women, for women'.

I'll stop there, shall I? Hopefully you should be snorting with derision by now. I am. In fact, there are so many things that irk me about Early Harvest that I don't quite know where to start.

How about this line from the press release attributed to Fosters' marketing director Trevor Croker: For women, wine is not an intellectual pursuit... ' Fair enough, perhaps, applied to some young women in their late teens and early twenties just getting into wine; for them terroir' might well take a back seat to taste. But surely this applies equally to young men at the same age? And surely it doesn't apply universally to Early Harvest's older target market? A statement like: For women, wine is not an intellectual pursuit' is simply patronising - and ultimately as meaningless as its corollary, for men wine is an intellectual pursuit'.

Early Harvest is also described as an entirely new style of wine', partly because the grapes were picked at low sugar levels. Hmm. Now while I may be no expert in gender demographics, I do know the odd thing or two about Australian wine history, and I believe there have been a few hundred Semillons made in the Hunter Valley over the years from early-harvested grapes.

Hold on a minute, what's this? A bottle of the 2005 Brokenwood Hunter Valley Semillon. Picked before Valentine's Day. That's early. And a mere 10.5% alcohol. I wonder how many calories that is ... Oh, and I wonder what it tastes like? I know, let's put it in a blind tasting line-up with the two Early Harvest wines and some other light, unwooded 2005 whites...

Early Harvest Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc: Light lemon-rind nose, some soft custard-powder flavours, callow finish'; Early Harvest Chardonnay: Estery, apple flavoured, light, simple, sweet'; and... the Brokenwood Semillon: Lean, mineral intensity, good fragrant character, chalky texture, good length'. Clearly the best wine, and almost the same alcohol - and look at that, it's the same price as the Early Harvest, too: A$17 at cellar door, and about that - or less - in the shops.

All of Hunter Semillon's history, tradition, distinctive vineyard sites and unique taste must have been considered too intellectually challenging for inclusion in the Early Harvest portfolio, I suppose.

Now, about those calories. Early Harvest wines prey on women's insecurities about their weight by proclaiming the wines are naturally lower in calories'. Begs the question, though: are the calories in normal' wine that fattening in the first place?

According to Creina Stockley, health information manager at the Australian Wine Research Institute, while one third of epidemiological studies show a negative correlation between moderate alcohol consumption and weight gain, one third show no correlation and one third even show a positive relationship - in other words, most of the evidence leads to the conclusion that drinking wine in moderation does not make women fat. Or men, for that matter.

The product development team behind Early Harvest - and White Lie - must be aware of this research. And yet they have continued with the naturally lower in calories' line. Why? Because it's less problematic than promoting a wine with lower alcohol: Here you go ladies: you can drink more of this because it won't make you fat,' sounds a lot less controversial than: Here you go ladies: you can drink more of this because it won't get you pissed as quickly.'

In an email informing me of the upcoming launch of Early Harvest, a Fosters marketing spokesperson described the new product as a sessionable wine'. As you know, sessionable' is a word used in the beer world to describe a brew that one can consume a lot of over the course of a drinking session. The way Early Harvest has been developed and is being marketed reinforces widespread concern that Fosters' takeover of Southcorp will result in a giant wine factory run by people with a beer mentality.