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In focus: Low-and-no alcohol wine

Low and no-alcohol serves have become a major force in the drinks industry. But while beer, cider and spirits have taken off in this sector, wine is lagging behind. Edith Hancock discovers what is powering this revolution.

It’s a strange thing when, for the past six months, we’ve had over 1,000 people visiting our website every day just to read a slideshow feature on non-alcoholic beer.

Food and mocktail matching, sober raves and mindful festivals are in vogue. No longer just for designated drivers or killjoy gym bunnies, it is now a “ridiculously exciting” time to want to order a low-ABV drink at the bar, according to Shilen Patel, co-founder of the Diageo-funded accelerator Distill Ventures.

Distill has worked with all kinds of craft beverages, from Australian whiskey distillers to German vermouth brands, but arguably its greatest success is its support of non-alcoholic ‘spirit’ brand Seedlip. Launched in 2015, today it is served in over 6,000 cocktail bars, hotels, restaurants and retailers in 25 countries, and last month became the official partner of the Michelin Guide in the US.

Distill published a white paper on its research into the non-alcoholic drinks trend this year. Launched in May, it broke down low-ABV drinks growth from three perspectives: restaurant and bar owners; consumers; and producers.

The latter also included bartenders, highlighting the appeal of a multi-layered beverage that has been crafted in the distillery and on the counter, and how Distill Ventures is treating the category like any other alcoholic product, with its own flavour profile and target audience.

Patel says while Seedlip has been the runaway success story for low-ABV drinks in the off-trade, as the category matures, “there is a lot of space in this area to target different occasions and consumers. There isn’t just one type of person looking to cut down on alcohol consumption. After an initial flurry of Seedlip lookalikes, we’re seeing more coming through.”

Seedlip is well aware of this, and has already brought a sister brand to market; Aecorn Aperitifs, designed to solve the problem of what to drink at dinner if you’re not drinking alcohol. Rich Woods, drinks development manager at Sushisamba Group, and now the co-owner of east London cocktail bar Scout, works closely with Seedlip and DV, curating a menu of alcohol-free drinks that were paired with a three-course dinner at a recent DV launch event.

Two of these bore a likeness to wines; a lightly carbonated, pale lemon “wasted wine”, made with grape skins, banana peel and wild chamomile; and a pale pink still strawberry-scented beverage with a mouthfeel very close to a light rosé wine. As the category grows and consumers become more comfortable with the idea of a substitution that is as good as the original, brands find more occasions they can cater for and problems they can solve. Once the first drink of the night is done, the next is often found at the dining table.

This presents a problem for some of our readers. Last year, sales of beer and cider with an ABV of between zero and 1.2% grew in volume and value by more than 40%, according to retail figures collated by Kantar, but wines in that alcohol bracket haven’t had the same success. Value growth has stagnated, and volumes fell by 2.1% in the same period.

Another research firm, Nielsen, recently released figures of its own that showed wine is “a sizeable category within no- and low-alcohol drinks, and has sold just under £40m, or 6.1m 75cl bottles in the last year”, but sales for low-alcohol wine showed a “small level of growth”, it said. Nielsen added that it “comes without any of the big fanfare launches that we’ve seen in beer”.

Bad Press

Although things are changing, low-ABV wines still get bad press compared with beers. Writing in the Wall Street Journal last month, author Lettie Teague said she spent weeks drinking only “virtuous” wines for her column, but was sad to report it was “only occasionally fun”. Even then, the absolute highest ABV she would drink was 12%, which is around 11.5% above the legal definition of “low alcohol”.

Claire Warner, the founder of Aecorn Aperitifs, says that wine businesses looking to produce low-ABV drinks have to overcome the fact they’ve disappointed potential consumers before they’ve even taken a sip.

“The challenge is if you come to something that’s non-alcoholic expecting to have the same experience as something alcoholic you will be inevitably disappointed because you’re removing what makes wine wine.” However, many believe attitudes to low-ABV wine are changing. Debbie Novograd, chief marketing officer of Advanced Beverage Technologies, which makes expensive tech devices used to de-alcoholise drinks, says the low-and-no trend is a “tremendous opportunity for the wine industry”.

(Photo: Aecorn Aperitifs)

She says specialist products can be as satisfying as their full-strength counterparts “if developed correctly. There are several key aspects to developing premium high-quality low- and no-alcohol wines,” she says, from choosing the right wine to removing alcohol with very low temperature distillation, which helps to retain key flavour compounds, to the blending and finishing touches needed once the alcohol is removed.

The rise in popularity of these drinks is invariably linked to a similar consumer trend: wellness. Distill Ventures’ white paper notes that bartenders are increasingly looking for new and exciting products to use as ingredients in their cocktails, from supposedly gut-friendly kombucha to antioxidant-rich herbal teas and bitters infused with CBD, a non-psychoactive component of the cannabis plant said to ease anxiety and more often sold in health food shops.

In March last year, The Hakkasan Group launched an alcohol-free list at its London restaurants that includes wood-infused water, salted juices and a Mai-Shin category – a tea and rice infusion similar in flavour to saké. The brands that have launched new products in the past decade have done so with a greater focus on natural methods than the earlier generation of low-ABV wines.

Mathilde Boulachin launched wine brand Pierre Chavin’s alcohol-free division 10 years ago with this in mind. “We have always tried to do things that no one else has wanted to or thought could be done before,” she says. Pierre Chavin specialises in lower- and zero-alcohol wines, making it something of an outlier in the Languedoc, more famous as France’s viticultural powerhouse.

Boulachin says that she was inspired by her own hurdles, having had two children in a short space of time. “I was essentially breastfeeding for four years, which is tricky if you’re a woman who enjoys wine.” As well as a standard zero-percent-ABV range, Zéro, two years ago the brand launched an organic line, Zéra. “We use fresh must, blend it with grape seeds together with skin contact to bring complexity. It’s a long maturation process with wood contact to extract the tannins that you need to bring to it.”

The CEO is candid about her company’s production process, believing this is essential in the low-and-no category.

(Photo: Pierre Chavin)

As a non-alcoholic product it must have all of its ingredients listed on its label, she says, meaning that it is “more transparent than wine. “It’s important to reassure the consumer if they’re worried about what they’re drinking, and for us it’s a key argument. It’s a selling point.” Pierre Chavin’s wines have on-trade listings at the likes of hotel chain Sofitel, but one of its key retailers in the UK is health food group Holland & Barratt. “We are very excited about this,” she says, as it reinforces the idea that wine not only can, but does fit into a healthy lifestyle, provided the alcohol is out of the equation and the focus is on what’s left in the bottle.

Patel agrees. “Consumers are increasingly interested in the product, and fully understanding how it’s made. I don’t think they need to know every last detail, but they want to know it hasn’t been messed about with.”

Sandro Bottega hosted a vertical tasting of the Prosecco brand’s vinatges spanning back to 2013 on 13 June (Photo: Bottega)

Pierre Chavin is not the only wine producer looking at zero-alcohol products in this way. During an interview last month, Italian fizz mogul Sandro Bottega mentioned to db that his Prosecco brand is in the process of developing its own alcohol-free alternative to the sparkling wine, and hopes to release it to coincide with next year’s Dry January. “I’m not sure if it will be ready,” he said, “but I think so.”

Owing to the strict production and labelling rules in Italy’s Prosecco region, Bottega said that it had been “extremely difficult” to develop a product of this kind and include it in the portfolio. “The regulation we have on wines is much stricter than in beer,” he said. “You cannot call it a wine, and you cannot use the word ‘Prosecco’, and you cannot add sugar.

“We also cannot de-alcoholise wine. It is not permitted. So if you want to make a good wine without alcohol you have to start with a must and maintain it throughout the year, and this is tremendously difficult.”

With brands such as Aecorn Aperitifs entering the on- and off-trade, and bartenders producing booze-free serves almost identical to their full-strength counterparts, wine bosses are only too aware of the need to present something that doesn’t compromise on quality.

While it is a fast-growing new category, the wine trade isn’t exactly under threat from the rise of mindful drinking. Companies like Pernod Ricard have answered the call by releasing lighter versions of their wines with ABVs of around 9%. Regardless of whether or not the new generation of consumers is drinking, they’re definitely buying less wine.

Using data gathered from all areas of the UK drinks market, figures from the IWSR released at a Vinexpo press briefing in March showed that still wine sales have fallen by three million nine-litre cases.

Juliane Schmitt, who runs German producer Schmitt Söene, says while there is “certainly a niche for these types of products” the taste is “so different to ‘regular’ wine, we do not foresee any loyal drinkers moving away from traditional wines.”

In most cases, she says, the trend “will manifest itself in moderate drinking, rather than a move towards alcohol-reduced wines.” Patel agrees, and suggests that non alcoholic wines have struggled in the past because of giving a bad first impression. “If people’s first experiences are bad that does have a potential to impact it in the future.”

As more consumers are seeking alcohol-free alternatives to their usual staples, winning them over isn’t necessarily the hard part, says Boulachin. Far more challenging are buyers and trade insiders who are more acquainted with full-strength products and demand a certain level of familiarity.

Pierre Chavin has met this challenge by working directly with culinary schools in France, and collaborated with high-profile bartenders such as Jennifer Le Nechet, of Café Moderne in Paris, on bespoke drinks recipes that include her sober-focused range.

Boulachin notes that within the last year there has been a 42% spike in Google searches for “mocktails” “You have bars that don’t even serve any alcohol anymore – now you have cocktails but you also have the other side and that is as trendy as the one with alcohol.”

Engaging with bartenders, she says is useful for her brand as it allows her to “bring the sparkling touch” with a 0%-ABV fizz. “Usually they get it from sparkling water, but our wine brings more complexity and elegance.”

Education is essential

Taking part in the wine-focused conference TexSom in Dallas this August, wine educator James Tidwell MS is organising a seminar exploring the future role of the sommelier, in which Seedlip will make a cameo – and says that more education about alternative serves is essential for sommeliers.

Offering education and training on the options available “allows the sommelier to fulfil the role of ‘all-rounder’ in the restaurant and to increase the value of the position by showing an understanding of the current market, how to offer a great guest experience, and how to provide revenue for the restaurant,” says Tidwell.

Companies that do want to experiment in this space shouldn’t feel constrained by the rules of wine production, but instead use it as an opportunity to spark debate. The wine trade, Tidwell adds, is “still focused on wine, but the rise of natural wines shows that there is broad interest in experimentation within the category”. db






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