Adnams Riesling 9%

Adnams Riesling 9%

(£9.99, Adnams)

‘Seriously, what’s the point of wine with no alcohol in it?!’

Such was the reaction of a good friend when we told her we’d been doing a tasting of low-and-no-alcohol drinks. (The category is known in the industry as ‘low-and-no’.)

On one level, the point is clear – money.

The low-and-no category is growing fast. This is being fuelled partly by an increasingly health-conscious market keen to reduce both calorie intake (alcohol being highly calorific – nearly twice as much as sugar) and also in response to broader health concerns about alcohol. Also sustaining this category is the sizeable proportion of the population who never drink alcohol.

In the UK, for instance, a recent study by the Office for National Statistics found that the number of UK teetotallers had risen by 2 percentage points to around 21%, equivalent to nearly 11 million people. In addition, the number of adults who reported drinking alcohol in the last week had fallen from 64.2% in 2005 to 56.9% in 2016. In short, just over half the UK adult population are regular drinkers (around 29 million people). And this total is falling over time.

What’s more, the BBPA recently published figures showing that, while it still has only a small share of the market at less than 1%, low-or-no beer sales grew 150% in the last four years. And its growth is forecast to continue, with worldwide non-alcoholic beer sales projected to surpass US$25 billion by 2024, according to Global Market insights.

Booze producers are understandably keen to tap into this very significant market of non- or non-regular drinkers. After all, why leave just over half the market to soft drinks makers, even if they are new and imaginative like the makers of sparkling tea?

Plus, there is clearly a demand for drinks that aren’t laden with sugar but instead offer more grown-up, adventurous flavours so people having a meal or volunteering for driving duties don’t feel like their drink is a barely palatable afterthought. Hence the rise of premium-marketed products like Fever Tree tonic and ‘distilled non-alcoholic spirit’ Seedlip.

Global behemoth brewer AB InBev, for example, is apparently aiming to make a fifth of its sales from low-or-no beer by 2025, investing in new products like Budweiser Prohibition. British brewer Brewdog has its 0.5% ale Nanny State while Big Drop Brewing Co and Nirvana both focus on low-or-no brews.

And yet here’s where we come to the nub of the issue. For the category to really take off, the stuff has to taste good. OK, we may be able to forgo the pleasant psychological and emotional effects of alcohol: the buzz, the slight release, the relaxation and so on. But we’re rarely prepared to compromise on flavour.

The tasting we mentioned in the opening to this piece was a range of well presented, funky beers.

They were revolting.

So much so that we spat them all out, as is our usual tasting technique, but this time not to excessive avoid alcohol intake – rather, to avoid barfing.

Wine has been another category where producers have struggled to remove the alcohol but retain the flavour magic.

In its purest form, no-alcohol wine would be grape juice. But that’s sweet and lacks the beautiful flavour concoctions that only result from fermentation. So the alcohol has to be taken out after fermentation – this can be done in a number of ways – but the result is often tart, sickly or relentlessly bland, and certainly a long way from decent wine.

And that’s because alcohol is a kind of invisible flavour enhancer in wine, the killer component that stitches everything together and renders it harmonious, subconsciously satisfying, gloriously complete. A kind of adult bon-bon, rich but not sweet. It’s only when you take it out that you notice how important it is.

So the search goes on for the holy grail: a wine that tastes delicious but has low or no alcohol. In the meantime, one idea is to drink well but less. Another is to seek out naturally lower alcohol wines.

Riesling is a good shout in this context and this Adnams Riesling is a great example, with very pure appley flavours and an elegant off-dry style. (Peter, 6/10, Sept 2018).

Be aware, though, that it’s the residual sugar doing the flavour balancing here (very well, it must be added, but it weighs in at around 40 grams per litre). It’s made by the Forrest family, who make a range of low-alcohol wines in New Zealand.

I’ve got a feeling, though, that beyond naturally lowish-alcohol white wine there will be three areas where wine manages to do low-or-no successfully.

The first is rosé. It’s a fun drink with few pretensions to grandeur (apologies to those super premium Provençal producers). It can handle the manipulations that wangles the alcohol down, can wear residual sugar adequately, and is perfect for the Instagram generation.

Adnams also have a ‘0.5% Garnacha rosé’ (the alcohol level being front-and-centre in both the name and the label) which is decent and succulent, if a bit soupy. Marks & Spencer’s Sumika Rosé 2017 proudly champions its ‘reduced calories and alcohol’ on its bottle and is a palatable, berry-filled South African Cinsault – albeit one at 8.5%, so not the whole hog in terms of alcohol reduction.

The next category is one that will be anathema to purists – but it’s blends of wine with fruit juice or essences. By their nature, these will be products targeted at younger or low-involvement wine drinkers rather than connoisseurs – but, taste-wise, they can be surprisingly decent. Especially the ones which, for example like Sauvignon Blanc and passion fruit, have some sort of natural flavour affinity and also mimic the way wine works – eg with an undercurrent of acidity to counter the sweetness of the fruit flavours.

The final category is sparkling wine. Consider the way sparkling water is a more interesting, multi-sensory flavour experience than still water – partly because of its visual appeal, its sound and also its gently acidic flavour and faintly energising hit of bubbles on the palate.

There is lots of experimentation to be done in low-or-no sparkling wine. Particularly in the area of traditional method fizz, whereby the flavour richness imparted by the yeast cells as the wine ages can add an extra dimension of flavour to compensate for the missing alcohol. This could be an exciting area of research, though we know of no one yet undertaking it.

In short, there is a point to wine with no alcohol. It’s an intriguing area of research and development that’s attempting to cater for an important and growing market.

Will it ever absolutely replicate the experience of a great wine? Almost certainly not. But perhaps that sort of unrealistic expectation is exactly what we shouldn’t be encouraging. This will be wine re-imagined, a recognisable yet alternative drink, one that takes the best of the grapes we so love and gives them a new expression.

I for one look forward to a day off the booze which involves a delicious wine. I encourage wine producers to make every effort to make this a reality – because the makers of beer, cider, perry, even non-alcoholic ‘spirits’ will certainly be doing the same. And, for wine lovers, there’s certainly more point to wine with no alcohol than beer with no alcohol.