How does alcohol-free wine taste?

by Marion Topitschnig

Wine also works without alcohol...the Wine+Partners team tasted 14 alcohol-free wines and wine-like drinks. Find out which products performed best and why non-alcoholic wine is a topic with a lot of potential for the future.

It was not only the staff of Wine+Partners who remained sober that evening, because when it comes to reliable figures on the subject of non-alcoholic wine, one is – at least in Austria – sitting on dry land.

Identifying opportunities

A quick search at two large online wine merchants reveals dealcoholised wines and sparkling wines are available, but the share of the total selection is vanishingly small. So is non-alcoholic wine a niche topic?

The answer is clearly no, because various international studies and surveys show innovative beverages with zero or low alcohol content have potential.

This is confirmed by the ProWein Business Report 2023, which surveyed around 2,500 wine industry experts from 47 countries. A special report was dedicated to market opportunities for still and sparkling wines from the so-called no-&-low segment – a sign of the growing importance of this topic in the industry. The UK, USA and Scandinavian countries were identified as important sales markets, with tax aspects also likely to play a role here.

While the merchants surveyed recognise the potential of the no-&-low segment and want to list more products, especially sparkling, the situation is different for the winemakers. More than 50% of respondents said they did not want to make any changes in production. However what may seem at first glance like a missed opportunity here, is, however, mainly due to production conditions. The technical process of dealcoholisation is complex and therefore expensive. For smaller businesses in particular, this effort is not economically feasible, especially since minimum quantities are usually prescribed for dealcoholisation.

Strategies, new approaches and innovation will be needed to feed the growing market with appropriate products. There are already initial approaches here, for example through wine-like drinks made from teas, extracts, kombucha and juices.

Is this even wine?

Since an EU amendment at the end of 2021, non-alcoholic and reduced-alcohol products may legally be called wine and thus fall under the wine law. The individual wine laws of member states subsequently regulate details such as a maximum value of 0.5% ABV for dealcoholised wine and the prohibition of narrower geographical designations of origin (Austria).

Is alcohol going out of fashion?

The alcohol industry seems to have recognised the trend on an international level. In doing so, it is responding to consumer behaviour that is undergoing significant change. Young people in particular are becoming increasingly critical of alcoholic beverages. The reasons for this are wide-ranging and extend from a healthy lifestyle – think Sober October, Dry January or Dry July – to the fear of losing control under the influence of alcohol. In addition, mixed wine drinks are becoming increasingly popular. If you take a look at drinks menus, you could exaggerate and speak of a "splash boom".

Analyses by Austrian Wine (ÖWM) also show a change in consumer behaviour. The per capita consumption of wine is declining due to various factors, and new consumers are drinking "differently", they report. In the future, non-alcoholic products could be used to attract non- and infrequent wine drinkers and offer an exciting alternative to those who are willing to experiment.

The Wine+Partners test

Surveys and statistics may give a clue as to how alcohol consumption will change in the future. Sometimes, however, one might abstain for a simple and happy reason, for example – as in the case of a Wine+Partners tasting – the pregnancy of a colleague. Tired of always drinking only water and juices, she organised a tasting of 14 products in total. The selection of samples was not exhaustive. They included dealcoholised white, rosé and red, and sparkling wines, as well as beverages inspired by wine.

During the tasting, it was admittedly difficult to put aside the demands one makes of "real" wine. A difference in taste is apparent and therefore, the same standards cannot be applied to the evaluation of non-alcoholic products as in a regular wine tasting. Alcohol is a flavour carrier, so it is all the more exciting how winemakers manage to keep the flavours in the product while the alcohol has to give way – either through spinning cone, vacuum distillation or reverse osmosis.

One who seems to be doing this particularly well is the VDP vintner Johannes Leitz from Rüdesheim in Germany. The Riesling ambassador and top winemaker of international stature also has dealcoholised products in his range with his Eins-Zwei-Zero (One-Two-Zero) line. His mission is to offer the "highest quality enjoyment – without alcohol and without compromises". This seems to be working, because Leitz has already won awards for two of its non-alcoholic wines at the Vinordic Wine Challenge, Sweden's largest wine competition. And the Wine+Partners team also voted to give first and second place to the Eins-Zwei-Zero wines.

The three favourites of the Wine+Partners team

  1. Eins-Zwei-Zero Rosé – Weingut Leitz, Rüdesheim (Germany)

  2. Eins-Zwei-Zero Riesling – Weingut Leitz, Rüdesheim (Germany)

  3. Sparkling – St. Antony, Nierstein (Germany)

Here to stay

If you look at the beer industry, you can guess where the alcohol-free journey is headed in the future. According to the Austrian Beer Culture Report, the consumption of non-alcoholic beers has risen to 28% from 17% in 2017. Alcohol-free products seem to be particularly appealing to a younger target group, with around a third of 18- to 29-year-olds saying they drink alcohol-free beer.

Although non-alcoholic beer is easier to make than wine, technological improvements will also help to produce higher-quality wine products. In addition, winemakers will have to rethink their approach. Climate change and its impact on the range of grape varieties will open up new opportunities and perspectives. It is highly likely that non-alcoholic and low-alcohol products will require a different marketing strategy and a different approach to the target group, as is already being implemented at Leitz winery or Kolonne Null, a Berlin-based brand that co-produces dealcoholised wines with international wineries. In any case, it will also take courage. But for the courageous, the future – to paraphrase Victor Hugo – will always be an opportunity.