"Dry January" is out of the question for many wine lovers. On the other hand, there are more non-alcoholic alternatives on the shelves than ever before. January is therefore a good time to try a few. Matthias Stelzig took the plunge.
The Spanish winery Torres is one of the veterans of non-alcoholic wine. We therefore start the test with its "Natureo" Rosado, a delicately pink-coloured cuvée made from Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon, which has been available for several years. After fermentation, the alcohol is extracted using a spinning cone column, which uses centrifugal force to break down the wine into its components such as alcohol, water and sugar. The "Natureo" tastes a little like cranberry, strawberries and pink grapefruit. If you like it crisp, fresh and fruity, you're in good hands here. But nothing more. It tastes well-balanced, but more or less like a German Kabinett wine from the 1980s with residual sweetness, only without alcohol.
Johannes Leitz pursues a different concept in the Rheingau. His top vineyards around Rüdesheim are 99 per cent Riesling. The "Eins Zwei Zero" from this variety already boils at 29°C due to the negative pressure during vacuum distillation. This means that the wine is not affected by collateral damage during heating. It smells of lemons and citrus fruits, and on the palate you can taste lots of apple and acidic flavours such as rhubarb. It all goes well with Riesling. With a little good will, it even offers a certain minerality. But it is slightly sweet, like almost every non-alcoholic wine. The flavour is dominated by sugar, in this case 38 grams - and that provides a few extra calories. "It's missing nine to ten per cent alcohol," says Nicole Klauß. The author of "Alkoholfrei", the most comprehensive reference work on the subject to date (AT-Verlag, 336 pages, 36 euros), has delved deep into the technology and knows the problems: "De-alcoholised wine can only be produced in large quantities and using complex processes." Failures in development can hardly be avoided and are painfully expensive for small winegrowers: "Even the wrong technique can ruin a good wine," she emphasises.
In addition to the alcohol, important flavour and structure components are removed during the process. Classic wine fans therefore often turn away - but they are not usually the producers' target group.
Statistics on the subject are few and far between. But it is primarily a mostly young, urban hipster milieu that appeals to non-alcoholic wines, more Generation Z than Baby Boomers. Neither is surprising. "I once organised a tasting on the subject, and there were three people there who had never drunk wine before," Klauß recalls. That's a deep insight. So if you're just looking for a replacement for your wine and measure the offer against it, you're unlikely to find it.
This is why there have long been alternatives that are not even based on alcoholic beverages. So wine fans are not disappointed when comparing them with the original. Tea, for example, has the home advantage of naturally containing tannins. This provides structure and goes well with food. It also has terroir notes and different types of ageing, which, according to Nicole Klauß, is very appealing to wine lovers: "You can immerse yourself in tea just as nerdily."
The "Royal Flush Sparkling" from British manufacturer Real Brewing, for example, is made from Darjeeling. The first flush, i.e. the first infusion of the tea, stands for fine, flowery flavours. The manufacturer promises that in a "natural fermentation process", bacteria ferment the sugar with yeast to produce carbon dioxide, among other things, which brings the sparkling flavour to the bottle. On the nose, I recognise red-skinned apples, cassis and ripe plums. The perlage is mild, and in the mouth I notice slightly smoky tannins. It certainly tastes good. The "Royal Flush" cuts a fine figure with smoked fish, cheese and ham.
In many teas, the Japanese mushroom Kombucha takes care of the fermentation. "Sparkling English Rose" from LA Brewery in Suffolk, for example, is a cuvée of green and black tea with a very fruity flavour of lime, peach and melon. An infusion of organic rose petals also releases flavours of elderflower, roses and exotic flowers.
The German fruit juice producer van Nahmen from Hamminkeln (Lower Rhine) has also expanded its portfolio in this direction. It produces non-alcoholic sparkling wines from a combination of fruit juice, carbon dioxide and complementary teas, which are produced using the cold-brew method. As a result, the sparkling drinks have very little residual sugar and offer interesting flavour combinations that are ideal for food pairing.
Even spirits variants are increasingly appearing on the alcohol-free shelves. Manufacturers have to come up with a few ideas to create a link to the original. The "Nightcap" from Three Spirit, for example, which is also available in Germany, is labelled as a "functional spirit alternative" and "non-alcoholic elixir". However, the promise "created by bartenders and plant scientists to lift moods and move spirits" does little to explain the concept.
The website states that the mixture contains maple syrup, sleeping berries - which Ayurveda fans love - white willow bark, vanilla and valerian. We are also told that it contains a tannin infusion, various preservatives and 12.7 per cent sugar - and that pregnant women should consult a doctor before drinking it. When poured well chilled, aromas of cedar, iodine and fermented fruit fill the nose. On the palate, medicinal tones, tobacco, sour fruit and an oily mouthfeel follow. It has body and a spicy chilli note that really stings on the tongue. "Ginger and chilli have a physical effect," says Nicole Klauß. The active ingredient capsaicin irritates the pain receptors of the mucous membranes, she explains the producers' trick.
This abundance of flavour is ideal in mixed drinks, classically with tonic or as a substitute for Scotch whisky in cocktails. When drunk neat, the "Nightcap" is reminiscent of Bowmore or Macallan whisky, even if it certainly doesn't replace them. Warm and cosy with a spicy finish, it is just right for the season and is actually suitable as a non-alcoholic digestive.
Non-alcoholic gin is perhaps an extreme phenomenon on the scene - if you think about it for a moment. For gin, the flavours of the botanicals are leached out with neutral alcohol, which is then diluted with water to drinking strength. In the end, it tastes of these flavours - and a lot of alcohol. But is it still gin if at least 50 per cent of its character is removed from the drink?
Perhaps that's why the stylish label on the typical cylinder bottle of Sipsmith's "FreeGlider" says "non-alcoholic spirit" and not "gin". At the distillery in West London, guests can view the romantic copper stills and the staff are happy to provide information about more than 100 ingredients and the good water that is said to flow from an unspecified source in the Thames into the "FreeGlider", which is also occasionally available from specialist retailers in Germany.
However, nothing is revealed about the dealcoholisation process. When asked, the press spokeswoman emails that it took "189 runs" to get the flavour right, but "we don't reveal too much about the production process". However, she does hint that the "FreeGlider" is not distilled at all. So not only would it not have been a gin, it would never have been a spirit, as it says on the label. "For many of these drinks," explains Nicole Klauß, "the producers simply macerate their botanicals in water, which allows fewer flavours to develop and makes production more expensive in the end." It also doesn't sound as good. "Many producers hide these unattractive marketing steps behind phrases like 'magic moment'," explains the author.
You can only reach for the bottle: Lots of lemon, juniper, soap scent and a fine chilli note in the aftertaste. Quite complex. But the palate lacks punch. It's not just the alcohol that's missing on the tongue - its function as a flavour booster is also gone. "Non-alcoholic gins are specifically designed for gin and tonics," the expert waves them away. So we take Fever Tree tonic with lots of basil flavouring, which significantly spices up the "FreeGlider". The drink oscillates very pleasantly between sharpness and sweetness. I no longer notice the lack of alcohol so clearly. Gin is the epitome of a fairly alcoholic drink - and in the test it is the biggest surprise: because it tastes good. It's a flavourful way to start a nice evening without alcohol.