In focus: Low-and-no alcohol wine

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.”

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