What’s The Deal With Non-Alcoholic Wine?
“So… what do you think?” It’s Monday, it’s approximately 5:35pm, and I’ve just cracked open a bottle of wine with my girlfriend. “It sort of tastes like peaches,” she says. “I’m getting some notes of elderflower,” I say, trying to sound sophisticated. Neither of these statements are exactly groundbreaking or surprising – both are, in fact, the sorts of clichéd terms that readily spill from sommeliers like swear words slip from the mouths of Glaswegians. The only difference is that the wine causing us to make these utterances (a Spumante from a producer called Oddbird) is completely alcohol-free. And it’s not half-bad. It’s actually, dare I say it, really rather good.
For a little context, I’m trying to become a wine guy. I don’t drink a huge amount of alcohol but, when I do, I try to make sure it’s the good stuff. And a decent glass of wine (or a stiff Negroni) is usually my drink of choice. I’m still thinking about a lovely bottle of Grolleau from Catherine & Pierre Breton that I sunk a few weeks ago over the course of a five-hour dinner. I’m that sort of romantic wine drinker. And eater.
My girlfriend, on the other hand, doesn’t drink. As well as becoming a lot more cognizant of how often I change my bedsheets, one of the major results of our relationship is that I’m much more aware of the non-alcoholic drinks offerings available at bars and restaurants. Or, rather, the lack thereof. After months of research, I’m fairly confident in saying that the alcohol-free section of most menus are limited, to say the least. Especially when it comes to wine.
You’ll generally find at least one alcohol-free beer on the drinks list (it’ll usually be a Beck’s Blue, a Heineken Zero, or – if you’re lucky – a Lucky Saint) yet it’s rare you’ll see even one non-alcoholic wine on offer. Intrigued by why that was the case, I asked a couple of sommeliers I knew why they didn’t have any non-alcoholic wines on their list. One, whose identity I’ll protect so they’re not hounded by press releases from alcohol-free wine brands trying to convince them otherwise, put it simply: “because they’re shit.”
It was that statement that led to me drinking Oddbird’s Spumante on a Monday. Because I’m not the sort of person who simply accepts that’s something shit without trying it out for myself. And, honestly, it was a pleasant surprise. The effervescent wine was made with Flera grapes grown on vineyards in Veneto, Italy and seemed to be a product that had had some genuine thought put into it. That, in turn, got me thinking that, hey, maybe non-alcoholic wine isn’t all bad! Then it immediately made me question whether I simply didn’t have a refined enough palate. So I enlisted the help of a person that definitely does.
Olly Smith is a TV presenter, award-winning wine expert, columnist and author. His podcast (A Glass With…) is an excellent and entertaining way to learn more about wine and the reasons that people drink it. He, a lot like that sommelier I spoke to, isn’t a massive fan of alcohol-free wine.
“I’m a great believer in the potential of non-alcoholic wine,” Olly tells MOB Kitchen, “but the reality is almost all the non-alcoholic wines I’ve so far tasted make me shudder with instant regret. They all seem to taste edgier than a razor on a highwire.”
“I’d love to be able to compare non-alcoholic wines to top-level tribute bands and say that some can almost make you feel you’re experiencing the real deal,” he continues, “but the truthful answer is no, I’ve yet to taste a non-alcoholic wine that’s on a par with alcoholic wine.”
While non-alcoholic wine might not be up there just yet, many non-alcoholic spirits such as Everleaf and Seedlip are coming on leaps and bounds. Non-alcoholic beers are also streets ahead when it comes to overall performance and there are even products like verjus, the pressed juice of unripened grapes, which have been around for a while and are now seeing their time in the limelight thanks to the general rise in sobriety. Although it’s naturally alcohol-free, verjus isn’t, however, something you’re going to want to drink multiple glasses of. It’s more of a vinegar-like serve that can add some lift to a mocktail but shouldn’t really be sipped neat.
In North America, you’ve got companies such as BevZero and wine proxies like Acid League making huge advances in terms of production and a couple of British kombucha brands – like Real Kombucha, for instance – are even starting to position their premium kombuchas made from interesting teas like first flush Darjeeling and pan-roasted green tea sourced from Zheijian, China as non-alcoholic alternatives to sparkling wine. With a lot of natural wines today sharing kombucha’s acidic and funky flavour profile, I’d say it’s a pretty valid alternative.
In seasonal small plates restaurants such as Jolene, located in London’s urbane Stoke Newington, they even serve homemade kombucha in wine glasses – let’s call it a somm-bucha – treating the liquid with just as much reverence as a wine. The caffeine kick of the liquid also helps if you’re planning on keeping up with the party while you’re sober.
Someone who knows a thing or two about how kombucha is being rebranded as a wine alternative is Julia Bainbridge. Julia – for those that aren’t already aware of her seminal work in the non-alcoholic beverage sphere – is a writer, author of Good Drinks, creator of the Good Drinks Newsletter, and recipient of the Research Society on Alcoholism's Media Award. She’s also recently written about the food pairing potential of kombucha for The Wall Street Journal.
"They're really leaning into the tea and what fermentation can do to these teas,” Julia tells me over Zoom, “they're not then adding on fruit flavours and stuff like the health tonics or juices you can find in the grocery store. They're definitely marketing them – and making them – to belong in a different environment."
Famed wine writer Matthew Jukes has even gotten into the non-alcoholic game recently with his brand of Jukes Cordialities. Rather than making alcohol-free wine, Jukes has created a range of non-alcoholic drinks that blend fruit, vegetables, herbs and spices together with organic apple cider vinegar. It’s that apple cider vinegar that forms the backbone of Jukes Cordialities and gives each serve a depth and texture that’s missing from a lot of low-to-no alcohol options out there. Jukes has forgotten more about wine than you’ll likely ever know and if his idea of an alcohol-free alternative to wine isn’t non-alcoholic wine but a different product entirely, then that definitely means something.
“Some of the makers even have, like, a specific varietal in mind when they're constructing these alternatives,” says Julia, in reference to some of the wine-like products created by companies like Jukes, “they’re meant to be drunk with food and they're meant to give you the balance of acid and sweetness and not-too-sweetness that a wine might. In comparison, a lot of the times when we talk about non-alcoholic wines we talk about them being thin and kind of lacking that mouthfeel and structure.”
It’s factors like that overwhelming sugariness and lack of body where most non-alcoholic wines stumble. Even sipping on our glasses of Spumante, my partner and I became aware that, while it tasted nice, it didn’t “feel” or act like wine in our mouths.
One of the reasons for this is that, in order to make an alcohol-free wine, winemakers need to put their “real wine” through either a process known as ‘reverse osmosis’ or ‘vacuum distillation'. The former involves filtering out a wine’s aroma compounds and phenolics before the alcohol is then removed via distillation. The latter involves heating the beer or wine under pressure to a temperature where the alcohol evaporates and disappears. Vacuum distillation is typically much cheaper and less time-consuming than reverse osmosis, however, some critics claim it makes a wine lose most of what makes it magic.
"Historically, non-alcohol wine – in my opinion – hasn't been very good. It is improving, though, because you have winemakers like [Johannes] Leitz. "I think he's one of the only winemakers who put money behind getting the de-alcoholisation technology into his own winery,” says Julia, who goes on to describe Leitz’s non-alcoholic wines to me as “best in class”.
What separates Johannes Leitz and his wine from a saccharine crowd of pretenders is that he uses an innovative technology which allows him to heat his wine at a much lower temperature, thereby helping him to retain most of the wine’s more favourable properties. Leitz winery’s Eins-Zwei-Zero Riesling is a lithe and athletic little wine produced from the grapes of young vines.
"The aim was to make a non-alcoholic wine you can drink with a fine dining meal – not only something for the patio or the porch or whatever," says Johannes, speaking to me from his vineyard in Germany as a large lorry comes to collect and transport his alcohol-free wine to UK supermarkets and suppliers. "When it comes to classical wines, I would never talk shit about my colleagues in the industry but I have to do it with non-alcoholic wine because, so far, everyone only distils trash. Real trash. Whenever something goes wrong in the cellar – and with red wine it's not uncommon that you’ll get some volatile acidity – they just distil it and turn it into non-alcoholic wine. It’s an afterthought. What happened with Leitz is that we were the first winemakers who distilled a high-end quality product with modern technology. That was maybe my best idea ever."
Johannes has successfully turned Leitz into one of the touchstone wineries for non-alcoholic wine. Far from something that’s limited to our cosmopolitan bubble of sober curious socialites here in London, Leitz winery sells alcohol-free wine to a range of countries including Russia, Ukraine, and Iceland. “We're even doing something in India,” notes Johannes.
“Normally, I hate to talk about trends when it comes to the wine business,” he says, “but there's no doubt that alcohol-free wine is a huge trend. People want to live longer; they want to live more healthy. I'm a proud alcoholic winemaker – I have been from my birth until the day I die – but even I have to admit that alcohol is a type of a poison. And I even know the damage that alcohol can cause.”
Moderation is something that’s rare to find in an industry that has historically been all about excess. The rifts between alcoholic and non-alcoholic winemakers are large with both camps shouting obscenities at each other over the trenches and I’m thankful that thoughtful winemakers like Johannes are offering alcohol-free alternatives along with their classical wines, placing both on equal footing.
The physical and emotional damage that alcohol can cause to a person’s life is one of the primary reasons that Oddbird (the producer of the Spumante I’m sipping) was created. Moa Gürbüzer, the founder of Oddbird, is a former family therapist and social worker. Working mainly with alcohol-related family issues, Moa saw first-hand the detrimental effects of alcohol abuse on society in Sweden. Moa founded her company with a vision to question and change the alcohol norms of society by creating quality wines and – in her words – “liberating them” from alcohol.
What sets Oddbird apart from other alcohol-free winemakers is that they focus on natural winemaking with minimal processing. They’re basically the trendy natty wine producers of the non-alcoholic wine world, making their wines using top-class grapes, maturing the juice for up to 12 months and only then removing (or “liberating”) the alcohol to keep the natural flavours intact. Oddbird “liberates” their wines by using the same method of vacuum distillation preferred by Johannes – putting their wine in a vacuum which dramatically lowers the boiling point of ethanol before adding a tiny bit of heat to burn off the alcohol.
“Globally, consumers have become more health-conscious since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic,” agrees Moa, “over the past few years, we have seen a movement towards consciousness and minimalism. Consumers are tired and overwhelmed by excess. That is why we refer to our products as ‘liberated from alcohol’ rather than non-alcoholic. Oddbird is a preferred and refined choice for the conscious, not a lesser alternative for those who have decided to opt-out.”
A stigma does, however, still exist with not drinking. Especially in a country like England that has such a prevalent drinking culture. It’s rare for someone at the pub not to pipe up if you decide to stick with water. Which is sad. As Moa puts it to me: “The question ‘would you like your wine with or without alcohol?’ should be as common as ‘would you like your coffee with or without milk?’. And I don’t see why, with Gen Z being dubbed the “Generation of Sobriety” by some, that can’t be the case more often going forward.
Because regardless of what you think about the present state of non-alcoholic wine, there’s no denying that the future of it is bright. “It’s going to be huge,” says Olly. “No question there will someday be a hoard of decent no alcohol wines – and I’ll be the first to raise my glass to the best – but, for now, the flavours are just too mean and the textures are all out of whack. If I can help create a non-alcoholic wine that tastes amazing, count me in, I want this category to feel thrilling.”
Like Olly, I’m looking forward to the moment that I’m not just parched but genuinely thrilled by a non-alcoholic wine. And while I’ve gone about that by trying to find the best non-alc wine around today, perhaps the best place to start is by re-examining the way I think about the genre as a whole.
"We will always be disappointed when we are comparing these things directly to alcohol,” says Julia, “alcohol behaves in a very particular way in terms of how other flavours balance against it and in terms of the impression it leaves on our palate. Science can speak to that, and that’s why products that don't have alcohol in them will never be exactly like the products with alcohol in them. And that's okay! They have value in and of themselves and I wish we could lean into that. I think mindset is really important here. Stop worrying about what it should taste like if it had alcohol in it and just worry about whether or not it tastes good."
I’ll raise a Riedel wine glass of kombucha to that.