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Everything you wanted to know about alcohol-free wine

By Posted in Podcast

We get loads of questions about alcohol-free wine. Why I can’t find an alcohol-free wine I like? What does it taste like? Where should I buy it? Are there good alternatives? In this week’s podcast, we put all of your questions to four experts in the field. We speak to:

How is alcohol-free wine made?

Christine Parkinson – Brimful Drinks

The thing that surprises a lot of people is that it is made from wine. A lot of people assume that it’s made from grape juice, but alcohol-free wine actually starts life as wine – complete with alcohol. So a winemaker’s grapes are picked, wine is made and then it goes through a process to remove the alcohol. This is where it gets technical.

Guy Roughly – Lindeman’s

Lindeman’s is a very old Australian company with a passion for sustainability. It was founded by Henry Lindeman, an English doctor who went to Australia in the 1800s. We really want to drive this position of wine being for everybody, so we’ve developed a range of alcohol-free wines.

We try to move away from just red, white, and sparkling into the nuances of grape varieties. It’s quite a difficult process because you have to start from the vineyard, which grapes are going to go towards an alcohol-free wine? The wine industry is very complex, there are lots of different varieties, and there are different alcoholic strengths. So you could get wine from Northern Europe – Germany, for example – at a strength of 8% or 9% alcohol, or one from the Shiraz in Australia, which will be 15%. Alcohol is a big percentage of the wine. We want to try and get the sugar, acidity, aromas, and flavours, to balance each other, but without the alcohol. That’s sometimes quite difficult because alcohol plays a big part in interacting with all of those components.

There are three main processes for making alcohol-free wine: spinning cone, vacuum distillation and reverse osmosis.

Why is it so hard to find a good alcohol-free wine?

When you remove the alcohol, you also remove a lot of textures and flavours and aromas. That’s the biggest challenge for producing a decent alcohol free wine.

Sarah Connolly – Sober Sommelier

Christine Parkinson – Brimful Drinks

Wine typically has around 14% of alcohol, compared with something like a beer or a cider, which contains between a third and a half of that. Removing alcohol away from the wine has a massive impact, much great than on something like beer. You’re starting with a very difficult product. The alcohol in alcoholic drinks is important, it gives body and texture. It provides that little bit of heat in your mouth and also carries flavours. If you’re taking a huge amount of that out of a drink, you’re really stripping away quite an important part of it. So the reality is, it’s a tough job to make an excellent de-alcoholised wine.

There are also attempts to make wine using non-traditional ingredients. A couple are made with teas, to try and create that dry Italian style. There’s a real move toward finding the technology and processes needed to create great alcohol-free wine.

Tom Ward – Wise Bartender

Why is alcohol-free wine so expensive? It doesn’t have duty on it?

Christine Parkinson – Brimful Drinks

Remember that before you can make an alcohol free wine, you have to make wine. You’ve got all the costs of growing the grapes, harvesting grapes, making the wine, the equipment, the labour. Then you’ve got the additional cost of going through the de-alcoholisation process. The equipment’s quite expensive, and the process is quite challenging. You’ve still got the costs of the bottle, the label, the cork, packaging, and shipping. Those costs are a bit higher too because you might be making 1,000 pallets of your main wine, but you might only be making 100 pallets of your de-alcoholised one. So the economies of scale aren’t there. The important thing to remember is that the expense of making wine is there, plus additional costs. A lot of people say ‘well, the alcohol duty isn’t there’. That is true. But as you get to a more premium product, the alcohol duty has less of an effect anyway. So, unfortunately, alcohol-free wine is never going to be a cheap drink.

That process obviously takes time. It requires a degree of technology. There are only a few places around the world where this can be done. These machines are expensive and the process takes time. That’s all built into the cost. A lot of wine at a commercial price point is shipped in big containers and bottled locally. We can’t do that without alcohol-free wine. We need to make sure that it’s got the right levels of preservatives in and it’s not going to spoil. Alcohol is a preservative that helps to keep the wine stable. Alcohol-free wine has to be treated a lot more carefully.

Guy Roughly – Lindeman’s

Sarah Connolly – Sober Sommelier

Historically, the demand hasn’t been there. For someone to create a new product they need to know that people are going to pay for it. That’s one of the biggest issues, people haven’t been prepared to invest in something where there wasn’t necessarily a large demand. But now, more people are looking for alcohol-free alternatives, so we are seeing some of the big wine producers start to spend some money and really try to create decent alcohol-free wines. I’ve definitely seen better options in the market in the last year, specifically coming out of New Zealand.

Tom Ward – Wise Bartender

I think for a quality alcohol-free wine, you’re probably going to spend £5-6 plus. There are more wines that are more than £10 and yes, they are better in quality. It’s up to the individual to decide whether it’s worth that that price for that slight improvement in quality. The entry level wines are nice, they do what they need to do. They give you that sense of occasion, they give you that treat. Experiment across the price range, you don’t need to start with the most expensive ones. Start at the middle of the range and see what you like.

How do I taste an alcohol-free wine to know if it’s nice or not?

Christine Parkinson – Brimful Drinks

Treat it like you would a wine that has alcohol. Choose a proper wine glass and get the temperature right – follow what it says on the bottle (but nearly always cooler than you think it should be).

Christine Parkinson – Brimful Drinks

If you watch a professional wine taster you’ll see they swirl the glass to bring out the aroma, then they sniff. You can do that. I always think the most important part with wine and especially with alcohol free wine, is that when you take a mouthful, you need to swish it around your mouth. This is the best bit. This is where you actually get to taste it. What people don’t realise is that different parts of our mouth detect different components of flavour and texture. To get the full impact, you need to swish it around your mouth at least once so that you notice everything. Professionals make a lot of noise doing that. You don’t have to, just make sure you pass it around your mouth to get the benefit of it.

Tom Ward – Wise Bartender

Everyone’s is unique and their palettes have evolved around flavours they seek. If you have a sweeter palette, you may find it easy to find your favourite alcohol-free wine. If you’re looking for that dry tannin character, then it can take a bit longer. If you’re going to stand them side by side [alcohol and alcohol-free], you’re going to see differences. But if it’s your midweek drink thats’s alcohol-free wine, you’ll soon get into that rhythm. If you decide to go completely alcohol free, your palate will change to what you’re consuming.

Sarah Connolly – Sober Sommelier

I think we go into tasting them hoping for the whole experience. I think that’s really dangerous when you’re tasting alcohol-free wine, because you’re not going to get the experience of drinking an alcoholic drink. If you are quitting or cutting back, give yourself a bit of time between when you drink the real thing and when you try alternatives, because they are quite distinctly different. If you’re expecting exactly the same experience, you will be disappointed. Often we drink to replicate an experience, we want to relax or we want to celebrate, so I think it’s important to know what you’re trying to achieve in that moment, and try and make sure you’re in that mindset before you even taste the alcohol-free stuff. I sit down with my glass, and know that it’s my personal time. I take my time to drink the alcohol-free drink without that expectation that it’s going to relax me, though it does actually. That whole ritual really does the trick for me. Taste it like you would a normal wine, take in the aromas, the textures, the flavours and tannins, really enjoy the experience.

Can I find an exact replica of the wine I used to drink? Or how do I begin to experiment?

Tom Ward – Wise Bartender

When you start your alcohol-free wine adventure, try to be open-minded, reset your palate and find what you like. Don’t feel disappointed if the first couple you try aren’t for you. There are many styles of alcoholic wine and alcohol-free wine. So it may take a while to find the one that really suits you. We’re seeing a real emergence of some quality alcohol-free wines in the marketplace.

Christine Parkinson – Brimful Drinks

One of the things that’s worth doing is trying different grape varieties.

Christine Parkinson – Brimful Drinks

Alcohol-free wine is usually made from a specific grape, like Shiraz or Sauvignon Blanc. Some grapes seem to survive having the alcohol removed better than others. It’s worth trying different things to what you’d normally drink. Some of the flavours come across better from certain grapes. Semillon is a good example, when you take the alcohol out it tastes more like what people expect from Sauvignon Blanc. It can be worth making that change and trying a different grape variety. You do get some single estate, wines, it’s not so common yet. Gradually I think we’ll see more of a quality pyramid where there’ll be more high-end wines that are alcohol free. But at the moment, it’s mainly what we call varietal wines, wines made from a particular grape variety. In terms of experimenting, it’s also worth saying to try moving away from wine as well. There are a surprising number of products which have the same sort of effect and impact as a wine, but they’re not made from wine at all.

I’m getting a headache when I drink alcohol-free wine. Why is that?

Christine Parkinson – Brimful Drinks

It’s the same with all wines. A lot of people think it’s sulphites. A lot of people think it’s red wine. Actually, there is a bit more going on. It might surprise people to know there are histamines in wine, there’s also something called tyramine. Also tannins which you get in red wine. All of those can be associated with causing headaches. Make sure you drink plenty of water. Some people would take an anti-histamine if it’s a real problem, but very few people should be affected badly by an alcohol-free wine.

Sarah Connolly – Sober Sommelier

Quite a lot of the wines have high histamine content, so you get that histamine headache. Also the tannins, particularly in the red. Alcohol-free reds can cause headaches. But my tip there would be to try and stick to the old world wines as opposed to the new world wines, which tend to have more additives. The old world wines tend to have fewer sulphates, fewer preservatives, so if that’s something you’re struggling with, I would stick with the wines from the old world. The other thing, of course, is the added sugar, which you have more of in the alcohol-free wines, that can contribute to headaches as well.

Why do alcohol-free wines taste sweeter than the full-strength versions?

Guy Roughly – Lindeman’s

Alcohol-free wines often have a bit more sugar in them for a number of reasons. One is because you might want to stop the fermentation before it gets so alcoholic that you’re killing the yeast. So the yeast isn’t consuming the rest of the sugar, so there’s sugar left in the wine. It’s also deliberate because sugar can help to broaden the palate and give the wine some weight. Some people don’t like a wine that’s too sweet. Unfortunately, labelling is not required to show the levels of sugar in the wine. It really is a question of trial and error and looking for the one that suits your palate best.

Does adding a few drops of vinegar bring down the sweetness?

Red wine is acetic acid and vinegar is a citric acid, so the acid will balance. You’re not bringing the sugar down, you’re just masking the perception of it by increasing the acid. We’ve done benchmark tastings where we’ve tried to make a drier wine. This hasn’t been so successful because it hasn’t got the weight and depth of flavour. We find that most consumers for alcohol and alcohol-free wine will always say they prefer dry wine. But actually, most don’t prefer dry wine, it’s slightly off-dry. A lot of red wines contain a degree of residual sugar which people probably don’t realise.

Christine Parkinson – Brimful Drinks

Grapes are sweet and contain a lot of sugar, and wine is made from grapes. With an alcoholic wine, the yeast consumes most of the sugar and produces a lot of alcohol. One of the approaches that wine makers can take is to start by not having so much alcohol in the wine, but that does tend to mean there’s more sugar. The second reason is that sweetness is actually very useful in a drink. When I was talking about taking alcohol out, and losing the body, sugar can actually really help with that. When you remove alcohol, you can make a wine taste very thin, and weedy. Whereas if there’s still some sweetness in it, the sugar will help to plump up the wine, and give it a bit more of a taste sensation as well as texture.

Why does alcohol-free sparkling wine seem to taste much better?

Guy Roughly – Lindeman’s

Alcohol is a preservative, and in some cases and also gives body – what I call palate weight. Alcohol makes a wine more viscous, it has a bit more weight, it fills the mouth more. When the alcohol is taken out, producers will look to try and replace that feel. There are a number of ways they can do this. One is by sparkling the wine. You may try an alcohol-free still wine and think, it’s a bit thin, it runs away a bit. But with sparkling wine there’s gas bubbles within it, carbon dioxide. The carbonic acid makes it more refreshing as well, which helps to build the feeling of richness and roundness in the mouth.

It’s the bubbles. Everything tastes better with bubbles. Carbonation in the wine lifts the taste, the aroma, and the character. It gives it a bit of mouthfeel. I think generally, bubbles make most drinks taste better. Particularly when you drink these carbonated wines with food, because the acidity level and the carbonation combined help cut through things like fats and creams that are present in food.

Sarah Connolly – Sober Sommelier

Where can I find good alcohol-free wine?

See our list of global online alcohol-free drink retailers.

Guy Roughly – Lindeman’s

Supermarkets are the best bet – they sell 80% of the wine sold in the UK and they’re getting better ranges now. Sainsbury’s have increased their range, and Waitrose have got a pretty good range now, as do Tesco. We need to be pushing forward with the hospitality area to work with pubs and restaurants to to try and make that available. They’re quite good on the alcohol-free beer side, but not so much on the alcohol-free wine. That’s a real opportunity, and a gap that we need to explore.

Tom Ward – Wise Bartender

The perfect red is a bit of a panacea for alcohol-free wine drinkers. But we’ve seen some great examples come through in the last few months. South Africa has an alcohol ban on at the moment because of COVID and that’s meant that alcohol producers had to pivot. They’ve got to come up with something different and unique. They’re pushing the boundaries on winemaking, so we’ve now got Darling Cellars and Cognato. They both brought out a red, a white and a rosé. The Shiraz seems to produce a really good alcohol-free red. We’re getting lots of rave reviews about them. White wines, again, from those two producers they’re really good. We’ve also just got Chateau ish from Denmark, it’s got a little bit of carbonation which lifts it a little, it’s a lovely spring-time wine. If you’ve ever had Vinho Verde, a Portuguese style wine, it’s quite close to that. They also brought out in a can.

Roses tend to be a little bit sweeter. They lend to an alcohol-free style quite well. The Natural Torres, which is a Spanish rose is quite popular. Finally, the fizzes. A good entry point is Belle & Co which is available in supermarkets as well as on our site. You’ve got Noughty and Wild Life with added botanicals. Wise Bartender’s about accessibility and flexibility. So you can buy every drink by the single bottle, and we’ve also got a number of tasting boxes.

Are there other options that go with food if I don’t want alcohol-free wine?

Guy Roughly – Lindeman’s

Alcohol-free beers have done really well – there are different flavours that would match food. So if you like an American IPA, West Coast IPA, there’s probably an alcohol-free equivalent, same with German Pilsner. Non-alcoholic cordials are made in an adult style, so they’re not sweet and jammy and fruity but they have more of a herby floral nature to them. Moving on really from the elderflower cordial and the dandelion and burdock to sort of wine type flavours and aromas. Like Matthew Jukes – you dilute them with water. So I’d probably explore something like those if there was no alcohol-free wine option.

Christine Parkinson – Brimful Drinks

There are certain drinks like kombucha, drinking vinegars, and shrubs which have naturally high acidity. They are quite good alternatives to wine. Some of the producers are really getting on board with this. You’ve got people like Real Kombucha who present their products in wine bottles, they’re like a sparkling wine. They’ve got nothing to do with wine, but they make a very, very good alternative.

Tom Ward – Wise Bartender

Kombucha is a good alcohol-free option, which is quite a unique flavour. I describe it as the olive of the drinks world. Sometimes it takes a couple for you to get the taste and then once you do you’ll love exploring the range. You can get ones that are quite sharp. Kombucha is full of antioxidants and lots of goodness for you. There’s also alcohol-free spirits, things like Three Spirit, Acorn aperitif, Nine Elms, they’ve all got a slightly wine slant to them. The final thing I would say is maybe try things like sour beers, or ciders. If you were never a beer or cider drinker before, perhaps now’s the time to give them a bit of a whirl.

Can I take my own alcohol-free wine or drink to a restaurant?

Guy Roughly – Lindeman’s

The key thing is to have the conversation before you go, don’t just sort of rock up to the table – you probably won’t get the answer that you were looking for. When we take our wine to drink with clients we say “look, you know, we’re gonna bring some of our own wine, but there’s some guys in our party who would be drinking beers and spirits. We’ve got a group of people, so we’re going to be spending money behind the bar anyway. Where do we come to an agreement?”. The alcohol-free one is an interesting issue. If we’re not drinking, we’re not going to be drinking your wine anyway. We may not want to drink, depending on the establishment, what they’re going to offer – a ginger ale or a coke. So you’ll probably end up with water, which is sadly the experience for people who don’t want to drink alcohol. I think it’s that question of saying, “we’re coming to you and we’re going to be spending some money. We were not going to be drinking wine anyway. It is likely to be two cokes”. People don’t session drink coke or lemonade while they’re eating. So they’re not missing out on a table session from somebody. The key thing is to have the conversation upfront. Explain that you’re intending to come and intending to spend money on food. “we’re coming to your restaurant, we feel as though there’s a gap in what you can what you can offer us, so we’re we’re trying to fill it ourselves, and therefore, we don’t want to be overly penalised for it”. Maybe there are some people in your party who will be drinking alcohol or different things from the bar or ordering different products, but you just want to bring a bottle or two bottles of alcohol-free wine to make sure that everybody in your party has a good time and is comfortable. Then you sort of come to an agreement.

Christine Parkinson – Brimful Drinks

Not every restaurant will do corkage. Good restaurants generally do. The first thing is to find out whether they do corkage because that will determine whether you can take the bottle in with you or not. And then in terms of what they’re going to charge you. I think unfortunately the majority of them will see your bottle of alcohol-free wine as an alternative to a bottle of wine because they are going to bring the sommelier over, they are going to use proper wine glasses for you, they are going to get the corkscrew out open the bottle pour it just like a bottle of wine. It’s not like plonking down a bottle of coke and a tumbler with some ice in it. And you wouldn’t want it to be like that. Treat your bottle of nice, probably quite expensive, alcohol free wine properly. Some restaurants will have a sliding scale, depending on the type of bottle. But it will generally depend on what their house wine or the cheapest wine is. They will be aiming to make the same profit as if they’d sold you a bottle of house wine.

Sarah Connolly – Sober Sommelier

I really recommend people call ahead. Explain to the manager if you can, that you don’t drink alcohol but you enjoy drinking alcohol-free wine and if they don’t sell it, would it be okay for you to bring your own? Most people will say yes. Specifically if they understand that you’re coming with people that do drink wine. I always add that if I’m going with people that are going to spend money on wine. Corkage wise, I’ve paid up to $15 which I would imagine is around sort of £8-10. I think that’s quite extreme. I wouldn’t normally want to pay more than $10. But I think at the moment, it’s important to ask if you enjoy drinking wine with your meal, and they don’t sell our alcohol-free wine. I absolutely recommend that you call and ask to take it with you because you’re going there for an experience. I think the more people ask the more restaurants will start to take on board that they need to be stocking these for people that don’t drink for whatever reason.

How can I encourage my favourite restaurant to stock something alcohol-free?

Guy Roughly – Lindeman’s

I think it is really gets to the point if you have a few facts about how much growth there is in this industry, how valuable this category could be if they were to stock non-alcoholic products. It would really expand their offer and make their offer available to many more people. Maybe on an individual face – say “look, you know, I’m going to be coming here often. I’m looking for a regular place to go or to bring clients or to bring family.” Give them the reassurance that that these things are going to take off. They could just buy a small range in and try that. These are not perishable products.

Sarah Connolly – Sober Sommelier

Over here [Australia], we’re doing a petition at the moment for alcohol-free in hospitality. The more people ask, the more restaurants are going to start listening. Every time I go out, I’ll always try and speak to the sommelier or the restaurant owner and say it’s definitely something you could consider. And then I connect them, I send an email. I know it’s a slow burn. It’s like gluten-free, now you can get gluten-free everywhere. I think it’s just a question of people making their voices heard and asking politely. I definitely think change is in the air.

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