Nonalcoholic Wine Is Having a Moment. Here’s What You Need to Know.
Something’s going on with nonalcoholic wine. It’s been a thing in Europe, but we’re finally seeing it grow here, too. About a dozen, if not more, new North American brands — like Be Well, Surely, Semblance, SipClean, Sovi, Lali, Starla, Luminara, Grüvi, and Brass Rabbit — have debuted within the last two years.
Nonalcoholic wine certainly isn’t new. Carl Jung Winery in Germany has been producing it for over a century and there are many other longstanding players, including Natureo, Ariel, Fre, and St. Regis. BevZero — a Santa Rosa, California-based consulting firm that helps brands reduce or remove alcohol from wines, beers, and ciders — produced more than 300,000 liters of nonalcoholic wine in its Spanish facilities eight years ago and it’s on track to produce well over five million liters this year.
But despite nonalcoholic wine’s popularity in Europe, “North America has thought of nonalcoholic wine as a sacrifice,” says Debbie Novograd, BevZero’s CEO. “You drank it because you had to.”
We’re finally more curious about it now, she says, and BevZero’s California headquarters reflect that. As recently as three years ago, they produced zero nonalcoholic beverages, but Novograd says that by the end of this year, approximately 20% of what’s running through their machines will be nonalcoholic wine. She expects that to grow to 40% or more next year, and she’s not alone.
With all of these new options appearing on the market, it can be hard to figure out where to start. To help you sort out what’s what, here are the CliffsNotes for better understanding nonalcoholic wine.
What Is Nonalcoholic Wine?
Nonalcoholic wine starts out as fully fermented wine. Then, someone removes the alcohol.
You’ve removed alcohol from a liquid before. You do it every time you add a cup of dry white wine to your Bolognese sauce and let it simmer until it has almost evaporated. It doesn’t matter that when you “boil off” the alcohol you also kill much of the wine’s nuance; you’ve got umami-packed tomatoes and beef and butter and milk and salt in the mix. This treatment would be far too tough for something you intend to pour straight into a glass and sip, though.
Instead, the two most popular methods for dealcoholizing wine today are reverse osmosis and vacuum distillation. They both involve expensive machinery, but the former is based on membrane technology — trying to fully understand it makes my brain hurt, but, by all means, read this paper if you’re curious — and the latter works at low temperatures and low pressures. My key takeaway after speaking with experts is that these procedures allow the wine to retain more of those volatile flavor molecules that make drinking it so pleasurable.
The Challenges and Advancements in Nonalcoholic Wine
Historically, there have been three main complaints about nonalcoholic wine.
- It lacks aroma, a fundamental part of enjoying wine. Much of the experience of flavor happens when aroma molecules in foods and drinks enter the nasal passages, and many of those molecules are lost in the dealcoholization process.
- It lacks body. According to Harold McGee, who writes about the chemistry of food and cooking, a given volume of alcohol weighs 80% as much as the same volume of water. When they’re combined, though, “the viscosity of the mix is higher than that of either pure liquid,” he told me. Remove the alcohol, then, and you have a liquid that feels thin, or, as Liz Thach put it in Forbes, “[a] possible analogy is skim milk versus [sic] whole milk.”
- It lacks balance. Often, makers have added sugar concentrate to the alcohol-removed liquid to achieve a fuller body, but then you’ve got something that’s too sweet for most of our palates to register as wine.
But, again, technological improvements are changing the game and makers are taking the time to understand the alcohol removal process.
From what I can tell, BevZero’s proprietary “GoLo” system is the best-in-class vacuum distillation technology. In low-temperature, low-pressure, anaerobic environments, their machines quickly separate the liquid into three columns, one of which is an “essence strip” that preserves a significant amount of aromas and other complex flavor constituents. Those are stripped off first and reserved, then the alcohol is removed, and, finally, the essence is remarried with the remaining liquid.
“In the past, we have not done a great job of getting high-quality nonalcoholic wines to U.S.-based consumers,” says Kayla Winter, head winemaker at BevZero and a Sonoma County native who studied enology and viticulture at Cornell University. “Now, a lot of people are taking that challenge seriously. The tide is shifting.”
Why Nonalcoholic Wine Now?
This is tricky to answer with certitude, but many believe the key words are wellness, weed, and worthwhile options. Consumer preferences are shifting towards healthier lifestyles, cannabis will only continue to give alcohol a run for its money, and attitudes towards low- and no-alcohol beverages are improving along with increased quality and availability.
And yes, young people are drinking less, according to Samuel Acuff, a clinical psychology doctoral student at The University of Memphis. A 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health shows that alcohol consumption among 18- to 25-year-olds had been slightly decreasing since 2015 and, after looking at 124 studies of changes in alcohol consumption during the pandemic, Acuff believes COVID-19 accelerated this trend among these emerging adults.
So, as you might imagine, alcohol-free wine sales grew in 2020 — and by a significant 22.7%. It still accounts for only a small portion of overall wine sales, though. (Last stat; I promise.) IWSR Drinks Market Analysis, which tracks global alcoholic beverage market data, reports that nonalcoholic still wine represented 0.1% of total still wine consumption in the U.S. in 2020, and nonalcoholic sparkling wine represented 0.4% of the sparkling wine category. Analysts expect the subcategory to remain niche, but these new brands are hoping that technological improvements and wellness-oriented messaging will invite more drinkers to try this type of beverage.
My Take on Nonalcoholic Wine
The experience of drinking nonalcoholic wine will likely never exactly match that of alcoholic wine, but this doesn’t mean that nonalcoholic wine doesn’t have value. I’ve come to think that its point is best understood by removing the word “wine” from the equation completely. Taste Leitz’s nonalcoholic riesling, for example, without comparing it to his “regular” riesling, and you’ll have a drink that’s more compelling and more mature than juice. Even the finest grape juice is quite sweet, and while you might not get a full body or strong aroma with nonalcoholic wine, you do get the sense that this was a fermented product — which is to say that deeper flavors we call “complex” were unlocked. Fermentation “produces … molecules that the grape itself cannot supply,” writes McGee in On Food and Cooking. The process “brings out the grape’s own flavor potential.” Some of that is lost through dealcoholization, but not all of it.
TL;DR: You might not call it wine, but you can’t really call it juice, either.
Bottles Worth Buying
As with all beverages, it ultimately comes down to what you like, but after tasting lots of nonalcoholic wine, here’s what’s stood out to me.
- Sparkling: Generally, I’ve found sparklers to be the most balanced. The bubbles’ acidity (carbonic acid forms when CO2 dissolves in water) helps reduce the prominence of sweetness. They also, of course, add texture. Semblance, which is new to the scene, and Thomson & Scott Noughty are my favorite sparkling whites, both chardonnays with nice acidity. I tried a number of new sparkling rosés, but Leitz’s Eins Zwei Zero, made with pinot noir, is the superior product. It’s juicy, tart, and well-balanced, and I was happy drinking it, which is the real test. It’s also worth noting that another of my favorites, Chateau del ISH from Denmark-based ISH Spirits will soon be available in the States. Online retailer thezeroproof.com will be taking orders for the sparkling white and sparkling rosé.
- White: For a still white, Leitz’s Eins Zwei Zero riesling is simply the best — for now. It’s more vinous than anything else I’ve tasted.
- Red: Unfortunately, I haven’t found any alcohol-free reds that I like, but The Takeout’s Allison Robicelli has.
- Non-grape-based bottles: You might consider an alternative approach to dealcoholization. The makers of NON, Wine Proxies, and Jörg Geiger Inspirations and PriSeccos all combine juices, teas, herbs, vinegars, and spices to make beverages that aren’t wine but are packaged in 750-milliliter glass bottles and are meant to be drunk like wine. London-based Mattew Jukes, who has been writing about wine for nearly three decades, similarly builds his Jukes from the ground up, mainly using apple cider vinegar and a mixture of fruits and vegetables. Sometimes there’s a varietal in mind and sometimes not, but each of these producers wants to stay true to wine in terms of its tannin structure, mouthfeel, and acid profile, and each thinks in terms of food pairings.
- My all-around favorite: The pét-nat-like Iridescent Moonbrew from Empress in Oslo, Norway makes me salivate just thinking about it. Empress owners Anna Karenina Anda Barron and Christer Andersson use a blend of sencha, jasmine, Yerba mate, and oolong teas to make kombucha, which provides the base for what they call their “wine alternatives.” (Iridescent Moonbrew is one of these; there’s also Woodland Honey Wine and Ficus Honey Wine.) To that, they add fermented nectarines, apricot vinegar, elderflower, orange peels, and sea salt. “It fits well with seafood,” says Anda Barron. “Also, we eat a lot of dim sum and it’s perfect for that.” I have a bottle of Iridescent Moonbrew chilling in the fridge as I type, and now I know what I’m eating for brunch this weekend along with it.
What about you? What are your favorite bottles — or cans, or boxes — of nonalcoholic wine?