We lined up 54 mid-priced (under $30) white wines for our annual tasting: a mix of sauvignon blanc, riesling, chardonnay and – for the first time – lower-alcohol sauvignon blanc. Winemakers are using clever techniques in the vineyard and the winery to produce lower-alcohol wines that don’t compromise on quality and drinkability. So how did these rate?

Across our tasting, the standard was high: 44 wines achieved 3 stars or higher.

Lower-alcohol sauvignon blanc

We started our tasting with the lower-alcohol sauvignon blancs. Although our tasting panel knew these wines were “lower alcohol”, they judged them against the same criteria as the other wines in our tasting. No concessions were made for their reduced alcohol content.

Our panel was looking for well-made wines that displayed the characteristics you expect of sauvignon blanc: punchy, fruit-driven wines with balanced acidity.

Become a Gold or Silver member to find out what they thought.

Sauvignon blanc

This is our most popular wine at home as well as overseas – in the year to June 2014, sauvignon blanc accounted for 86 percent of New Zealand’s wine exports. We included sauvignon blanc from the 2013 and 2014 vintages.

Become a Gold or Silver member to find out our top sauvignon blancs.

Riesling

This versatile grape is naturally suited to making lower-alcohol wines – and some very good ones at that. A couple of the rieslings in our tasting contained around 9 percent alcohol and one of these earned the maximum 5-star rating.

Become a Gold or Silver member to find out our top rieslings.

Chardonnay

We sometimes struggle to find medal-winning chardonnay in our tastings, not because it doesn’t exist – New Zealand makes excellent chardonnay – it’s just hard to find within our “under $30” price range. But not this year.

Become a Gold or Silver member to find out our top chardonnays.

About our tasting

We buy our wines from supermarkets and bottle stores like you do. Our wines are grouped according to their variety and vintage. Then they’re presented "blind" to our panel.

Each judge gives each wine a score out of 20, following the international scoring system for wines. The judges also discuss the wine after it’s been tasted – still without knowing what it is – and then they agree on a final (combined) score. The wines’ identities are revealed to the judges after this.

Our star ratings are based on the judges’ final (combined) score.

Our judges used Spiegelau Festival Degustation Chianti glasses. These are generously sized glasses suitable for both red and white wines, with a rim that’s narrower than the base. Their shape lets the judges swirl the wine, releasing aromas and allowing the colour and appearance of the wine to be inspected.

How to read wine label

Wine labels are required by law to state:

  • name and address of the winemaker or supplier
  • volume of wine
  • alcohol content
  • number of standard drinks.

Unlike food, wine is also required to state the country of origin. If the grapes come from two countries, both must be listed.

If two or more grapes are listed, they must be listed in descending order. If there's more merlot than shiraz in a blend, it must be called "merlot shiraz" rather than the other way around.

Additives and preservatives
You might be surprised to read on your bottle that it "may contain" fish, milk, or egg products. These are used in small quantities to prevent wine going cloudy or to remove bitterness or astringency. They're mostly filtered out before wine is sold but there's always a chance tiny residual amounts will remain. The Food Standards Code requires these additives to be declared on all wine labels, so that people with allergies are forewarned.

And if there's more than 10mg/kg of sulphur dioxide (a preservative) then that must be declared too.

The 85 percent rule

From the 2007 vintage onwards, an "85 percent rule" came into force. This covers claims about grape variety, vintage, and the area where the grapes are grown.

For example, a wine whose label claims it's a single grape variety, single vintage, or from a single area must contain at least 85 percent of that variety, vintage or area. And if a label says the wine is "2007", then at least 85 percent of that wine must be from the 2007 vintage.

Previously there had been only a 75 percent requirement. That means a wine claiming a 2006 vintage only needs to be 75 percent from that year, and a chardonnay from 2006 or earlier only has to have 75 percent chardonnay grapes.

What else is on the label?

There's a lot of other information on the label that can help you be a wine buff.

Vintage
This is the year the grapes were harvested. There may be a certain percentage of grapes from another year, though - see "The 85 percent rule" just above.

Non-vintage
NV wines are blends from more than one year. If there's no date on the label you can be pretty sure it's NV. (Why do winemakers do this? Blending wines from different years allows them to produce consistent wines from one year to the next.)

Medals
You've seen the little gold and silver labels displaying wine-show awards. But the claim must be true for the wine in that particular bottle - and the wine mustn't be different from what was submitted to the show. A medal, however, doesn't mean a wine is necessarily better than a wine without a medal: some winemakers choose not to enter shows and competitions.

The back label
This typically gives information about the winery, vineyard, and how the wine tastes. It may also give tips for food matching. Sometimes it'll tell you whether the wine's for "drinking now" or for "cellaring" - and how long you should cellar it for.

Sweetness scale

It’s hard to know how sweet a riesling is going to be until you take a sip – but knowing how sweet it’ll taste is important before you choose the wine, especially for food matching. It also makes it easier to choose a riesling that suits your taste buds!

Riesling labels will often state the “residual sugar” in grams – and sometimes the acidity. But it’s the balance between sugar and acidity that determines how sweet the wine tastes.

We’d like to see more wine labels use the International Riesling Foundation’s “taste profile” scale (see below). This scale ranges from dry to sweet and is an indication of the perceived sweetness (how it tastes) rather than measured sweetness.

Our advice

  • Lower-alcohol sauvignon blanc shows promise. But don’t forget about riesling – a wine that’s often naturally lower in alcohol.
  • Wine tasting is subjective. Your favourites won’t always match those of our judges.
  • Look for specials online and at supermarkets. We bought our wines at supermarkets in September 2014 – and some were on special.
  • Take it easy. Drink wine responsibly.