“What exactly is the point?” I’ve found this to be the almost universal reaction to low- and no-alcohol wine among both wine lovers and people in the wine trade. To be honest, it isn’t something I seriously considered either—until I spent many months between late 2016 and the present either pregnant or nursing. As a wine professional (and Master of Wine student for some of that time), it gave me pause.
Though pregnancy is one obvious reason someone might wish to curb their alcohol consumption, I quickly realised I wasn’t alone. The reasons are myriad, from inability to process alcohol (pretty common in southern China), to any number of health issues, religious prohibitions, as well as needing to drive, operate machinery or otherwise stay clear-headed. Maybe you just enjoyed dry January so much you’ve become “sober-curious.”
Given this abundance of reasons, other low- or no-alcohol beverages such as Seedlip, a non-alcoholic spirit, are going gangbusters. In markets where cannabinoids are legal, CBD and THC-infused beverages, which in many jurisdictions can’t contain alcohol, are another factor driving the no-alcohol trend. However, wine (as usual) has been a bit slow to catch on, with the category’s growth lagging until recently.
It may have something to do with the legal definitions, which are confusing and largely designed for the beer industry. In the UK, for instance, there are three categories: low-alcohol (under 1.2%), de-alcoholised (under 0.5%) and alcohol-free (0.05% or less), all much lower than any naturally achievable wine. A wine at 5.5% alcohol is technically a “reduced alcohol” wine, rather than “low alcohol” and actually needs a special dispensation to be called wine at all, since in the EU “wine” must be at least 8.5%.
Technologies used to reduce or remove alcohol in wine—including the sci-fi sounding reverse osmosis and spinning cone—can also be rough on it from a taste perspective, sucking out some of the key aromas and textural components with the booze. Hence, truly enjoyable alcohol-free “wines” are few and far between (I recommend mocktails instead). A better bet is generally low-ish alcohol wines from cool climates or grape varieties such as riesling that can ripen at lower sugar levels, ultimately yielding lower alcohol levels. But these are more or less restricted to white wines, which is not great news for our red-loving continent.