The market for wine with no or low alcohol is growing strongly in some parts of the world. Why? For publication in the week starting 27 November 2018
Younger adults are tending to avoid alcohol in some nations of the world. In the UK, for example, about one in four people aged 18-24 are teetotal, according to the Office for National Statistics. A decade ago the proportion was one in five.
Some people are rejecting alcohol for health reasons. On average in the UK about one million pregnant women each year avoid alcohol because of fears associated with damage to the foetus. Social pressure and drink-drive laws are also affecting consumption. During the forthcoming festive season, the question arises: What to serve the designated driver beyond water or sugary soft drink?
In the UK a growing number of people are adopting a Dry January policy after the excesses of the party season. Alcohol Concern started this initiative in 2013. That year about 4,350 people abstained from alcohol for the month. This year the total was more than five million, an indication of the potential number of people seeking a non-alcoholic option when entertaining. This partly explains why supermarkets introduce new lines near the end of each year.
These trends explain the surge in popularity of alcohol-free or low-alcohol wines in some countries. A sparkling wine known as the Bees Knees represents an example of the former category. The Bees Knees presents as the kind of sparkling wine served at receptions and parties, or can be enjoyed as an aperitif. It looks and tastes like fizz, but contains no alcohol.
Consider those designated drivers this Yuletide season: A flute of alcohol-free sparkling is more exciting than water, and not over-laden with sugar as is the case with the majority of soft drinks.
Some of the major wine-producing nations are concerned about how to maintain consumption levels if the trend among younger consumers continues. This has been the subject of earlier columns.
Bees Knees sparkling wine is made from grape juice, but infused with green tea which seems to give a sense of “body” that sparkling wine requires. It has no alcohol and only about half the calories of average fizz (a 750 ml bottle contains about 200 calories). It is available in white and rosé. Bees Knees is bottled in Germany, according to the label, but the origins of the grape juice are unclear.
The wine has the classic closure of cork and cage, and opens like a traditional sparkling wine with a pleasant “baby’s fart” as the cork emerges. The bottle looks like a sparkling wine container. The rosé has good acidity and colour and feels like a mid-weight rosé fizz. The white feels slightly sweeter and tastes more like Appletiser or sparkling apple juice than wine, but it has pleasing acidity. The stream of bubbles from the bottom of the glass to the surface of both wines, known as the “bead” in Champagne and sparkling wines, looks like classic fizz.
California produces more than 90 per cent of all the wine made in the United States. Debra Parker Wong is a wine educator and wine journalist based in San Francisco. She appreciates consumer concerns about excess alcohol consumption and the related intake of calories, but notes that low and no-alcohol category wines are not a regular choice for most drinkers in California.
“While sales of both low and no-alcohol wine and beer are growing in the United States, sales of non-alcoholic wine have been inconsistent largely because products don’t meet consumer expectations for taste and price. I saw this demonstrated first hand during a recent tasting of Ariel Cabernet Sauvignon, a non-alcoholic wine which has been on the market since 1985, by Millennial students in my Wine 1 course at Santa Rosa Junior College. Fewer than one per cent of students indicated that they would purchase the product.”
Some scientists argue that alcohol affects how we taste, but not what we taste. Others say that removal of alcohol produces a different portrait of what we consume: Alcohol provides “body” so more alcohol increases the sensation of weight. Alcohol also provides texture, so its removal can change the “feel” of a wine. White wines seem to maintain the original textural qualities of the alcoholic wine more successfully. Some argue the fruit flavours of the wine become more noticeable.
The character of the original wine, as in its aromas and taste, are said to be maintained better when a technique known as “spinning cone” is used. It gently removes the alcohol without reducing the aromas, quality or flavour profile of the wine.
Some low-alcohol wines are made either by fermenting the grapes for a shorter time, or by replacing the alcohol with artificial flavours. These wines tend to be almost alcohol free – less than 0.5 per cent. Wine critic Jane MacQuitty advised readers of The Times newspaper to approach all low-alcohol wines “with caution”. “Most of the low-alcohol and de-alcoholised wines I’ve tasted have been vile, sticky, grubby, luridly-coloured liquids that bear no relation to wine.”
Wine expert Alexandra Runciman developed a low-alcohol range for Tesco, the biggest supermarket chain in the UK. She told the drinks business magazine that more and more people were looking for high quality drinks with low alcohol. “Consumption of alcohol in the UK is down by 18 per cent over the past decade,” she said, “and we’re seeing more customers looking for a quality wine drinking experience without the alcohol.”
A number of European supermarkets have begun developing low-alcohol offerings. Germany’s Lidl this month launched its New Year Wine Cellar selection. In August this year Aldi added four low-alcohol wines to its list, each with about 5 per cent alcohol.
Clearly alcohol will remain a topic of debate for years to come. Regardless of what you drink, consume wine sensibly — for the enjoyment rather than the hit.