The low-alcohol wine segment has been around for a while now, but has thus far failed to win over too many fans. Things are changing, however, with consumers' taste preferences driving the sub-category to higher ground. Chris Losh delves deeper.

The year is 2007, and Apple has just brought out the iPhone. But, not everyone is impressed. The top man at Microsoft, Steve Ballmer, openly laughs when asked his opinion of the new product. "US$500?" he guffaws. "That is the most expensive 'phone in the world, and it won’t appeal to business customers because it doesn’t have a keyboard."

Of course, with the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to laugh at his misplaced scepticism; it ranks alongside the record labels who turned down the Beatles and the publishers who ignored JK Rowling.

We should be wary of being too smug, though, because I’d say that the wine trade is in a similar state of denial about a major stylistic shift taking place within the world of drink, which is going to have an increasing effect on wine.

For iPhone 3, read ‘low alcohol’.

Of course, you can’t get most merchants, sommeliers or journalists to take low-abv wine seriously. I remember attending a Tesco tasting a year ago, and seeing a gaggle of wine writers sneering at the supermarket’s new Ugo product (a mint-and-elderflower-flavoured pressé). Granted, it didn’t taste exactly like wine, but it was only 5.5% abv, highly drinkable, and (crucially) exactly what its key market was looking for.

On the one hand, the sneering is understandable. This is, after all, a complicated area, with myriad different styles of beverage being produced, no consistency of labelling or definition and any number of variations in legislation from country to country. And, even for the public, it remains a polarising issue. Industry analyst Wine Intelligence recently published a report into low-alcohol wine, which revealed that, across the segment’s key eight markets, 40% of wine drinkers would never consider buying the stuff.

However, that still leaves 120m regular wine drinkers (out of a total of 220m) who would, which is hardly insignificant.

Moreover, as a category, it seems to have matured significantly over the last couple of years. A tasting of low-alcohol offerings in 2013 left me, to put it politely, underwhelmed. Now, there are a growing number of products that are perfectly drinkable, even to lovers of ‘proper’ wine.

It looks to me like the producers that are taking it seriously (mostly large, New World companies, although Castel Freres and Grands Chais de France are powerful too) are starting to get to grips with what works and what doesn’t.

One of the key areas of growth has been the 'Flavoured Alcoholic Beverage including Wine' segment (suggestions for a snappier title welcome). It’s particularly big in France, ironically. While the ‘regular’ wine market there is in long-term decline, fruit-added wines are in strong growth – estimates put the market at around 30m litres in 2014.

The target consumer is ‘newbies’ – drinkers in the 18-35 age bracket (I suspect, more realistically, it's 18-25) who have little or no wine knowledge and, crucially, no real interest in the conventions of ‘proper’ wine. These Millennial consumers have no problem with seeing wine and fruit flavours mixed together, provided that they like the taste.

"Newbie consumers are eager to experiment with new flavours and generally have a sweeter tooth, which can make dry wines unappealing to them," says Amy White, marketing controller for Accolade Wines' Echo Falls brand, which launched a fruit fusion range last year at 9.5% to 11% abv. "They have been shying away from the wine category and choosing sweeter styles of drinks, like flavoured cider and beer for example."

In other words, to hook Millennials, wine needs to stop seeing itself as being a product that drinkers will flock to unaided, and wake up to the fact that, for a growing number of consumers, it’s in competition with RTDs, beer and cider.

"I’m most excited by the move to flavour infusions," says Dan Jago, group wine director at supermarket giant Tesco. "You stop worrying about whether it’s a wine or not; you are creating an alcoholic beverage that’s based on wines, that has a flavour profile that people enjoy. There is a whole emerging world. There’s ‘proper’ wine, but also this very exciting sub-category of refreshing drinks, which are made from wine or grape-based drinks."

Exciting indeed. While there are signs that sales of ‘ordinary’ wines that have been de-alcoholised to around 5.5% abv are slowing in some markets, these fruit-infused drinks are on the up. This might be because consumer tolerance for lower-alcohol wines lessens as the abv shrinks. Research by Wine Intelligence shows that, while less than 10% of consumers have bought wine under 5.5% abv, up to a third had done so in the 9% to 10.5% abv area.

Of course, some ‘normal’ wines already come in naturally around this level. But, inside the next decade, we can expect a growing number of styles to join the likes of German Riesling and Vinho Verde.

From Chile to Australia, producers are labouring to find ways to drop points off their abv. And, while there’s only so much that can be done in the vineyard and winery to mitigate against naturally-higher sugar levels, the days of the 14.5% abv being worn with the macho pride of a gold ingot in a sea of chest hair are disappearing.

New Zealand’s wine industry is in a seven-year, NZD17m (US$12m) research project aimed at naturally lowering alcohol levels in the vineyard and the winery, the end result of which, I’m sure, will be a growing number of wines in the 8% to 11% abv sweet-spot.

These kind of wines, if done well, should be attractive both to health-conscious newbies looking to migrate from fruit infusions or lower-alcohol wines, and to established wine drinkers.

Wearable technology – the latest IT development – is big on health. An entire generation has grown up monitoring its alcohol intake, calories and exercise. We might not be having conversations like this were it not for smartphones, but they have, as the Apple slogan put it, changed everything; whether the wine industry likes it or not.