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Dry January", the self-chosen temporary abstinence from alcohol after the holidays, has become a ritual for many. But current studies clearly show that it is not only at the beginning of the year that people drink less. More and more people around the world are reducing their alcohol consumption - or even doing without it altogether. At the same time, the demand for non-alcoholic alternatives is rising - and is prompting even top winemakers to expand their range.

Sporty, fit, healthy: according to surveys, the generation up to 35 in particular is giving up alcohol because of a more conscious lifestyle and the potential danger of addiction. Current figures from the market research institute Nielsen show that 58 percent of people worldwide consumed non-alcoholic beverages more frequently in 2021 than in the previous year. A global trend. But abstaining from alcohol should also make drinking fun and enjoyment possible.

Beer leads the way, wine follows suit

In addition to non-alcoholic beer, which has been an integral part of German beverage shelves since the end of the 1970s, de-alcoholised wines and sparkling wines have been enjoying a noticeable increase in demand for some years now. The German Wine Institute (DWI) is currently talking about a market share of around one percent of total wine consumption in Germany, and even five percent for non-alcoholic sparkling wine. Trend: rising

The higher level of awareness of sparkling wines is easy to explain. Large sparkling wine producers like Schloss Wachenheim, Henkell Freixenet or Rotkäppchen Mumm have been selling their non-alcoholic products in food retailers and discounters for many years.

Compared to the beer industry, which today has almost 700 non-alcoholic beer varieties in Germany alone, the non-alcoholic wine industry is still in its infancy. But all those involved are now feeling a clear upswing. While the first attempts were made by commercial wineries and bottlers with private labels, top winemakers are now also daring to offer products in this category. They are focusing on handcrafted, carefully produced dealcoholised wines that should also convince discerning wine connoisseurs.

Alcohol in, alcohol out

By definition, wine is an alcoholic beverage made from fermented grape juice. During fermentation, the sugar contained is converted into alcohol - a natural process. But how do you get it out again? Various methods are suitable for dealcoholisation. Today, processes with continuous vacuum distillation are the most common. In this process, the alcohol is gently extracted from the wine under negative pressure and at temperatures of around 30 °C. The ethanol is separated with the ethanol. The aroma fractions separated with the ethanol are subsequently returned to the wine.

The first patent for vacuum distillation was registered as early as 1908 by the Rheingau wine merchant Carl Jung. Jung was a visionary entrepreneur. Today, the winery of the same name based in Rüdesheim produces around ten million bottles of alcohol-free wines.

But because the wines lose a flavour carrier with the alcohol, sweetness is usually added to them to restore the balance. Therefore, compared to dry wines, non-alcoholic wines have a very high sugar content, which is not to the taste of many consumers. Moreover, the first generation of non-alcoholic wines tasted unbalanced and unharmonious, and for many this is still the case today.

But the industry is not asleep. It is working to significantly improve quality and sensory characteristics. As consumer interest grows, the know-how and technology for dealcoholisation is improving. Debbie Novograd is the CEO of BevZero, a Californian technology company that manufactures equipment for dealcoholisation. She told Drinks Business magazine, "There are new, cheaper technologies available to make non-alcoholic drinks from alcoholic base products." Novograd said it was important for the industry to focus on premium wines in the future to help the non-alcoholic wine category gain a better image.

EU sees need for action

That non-alcoholic wine is a product category to be taken seriously is shown by the recent amendment of the EU wine law. At the beginning of December 2021, the EU passed a new regulation according to which wine, as well as sparkling wines and semi-sparkling wine with added carbon dioxide, may now be labelled "dealcoholised" or "partially dealcoholised".

In Germany, non-alcoholic and reduced-alcohol wines have so far fallen under the Food Act and must also be labelled differently. For example, nutritional information and the best-before date must be declared. A drink may be labelled alcohol-free if it contains a maximum of 0.5 percent alcohol.

Winemakers recognise the signs of the times

In 2018, Berlin students Philipp Rößle and Moritz Zyrewitz founded the start-up company "Kolonne Null" and, in cooperation with an Austrian winery, brought their first alcohol-free wine to the shops. Success was not long in coming, and other wineries got involved in alcohol-free wine production. Well-known producers such as Kruger Rumpf (Nahe), Freiherr von Gleichenstein (Baden) or Alois Lageder (South Tyrol) now produce alcohol-free wines and sparkling wines in cooperation with Kolonne Null. They all recognised the trend early on.

Winemaker Johannes Leitz from the Rheingau also caters to the growing demand for non-alcoholic, artisan wines with his "Eins, Zwei, Zero" line. He still sees a lot of need for education. "As soon as something is written about alcohol-free wine in the social media, 95 percent of the time a shitstorm starts. Very often, juice is suggested as an alternative to alcohol-free wine. But many consumers have to give up alcohol for health reasons and cannot choose a product that often contains over 150 grams of sugar per litre. I have spoken to many customers around the world. They are very happy to have a non-alcoholic alternative to wine that still makes them feel like wine lovers."

The trend has only just begun.

Johannes Leitz

In addition to Leitz, the Bähr family from Mußbach in the Palatinate has specialised in producing alcohol-free wines. The Rhine-Hessian sparkling wine producer Strauch has two alcohol-free sparkling wines in its range and the VDP winery Allendorf from the Rheingau also offers alcohol-free Riesling. Things are happening in the zero-alcohol sector: because more vintners will follow these examples.

Online shops and non-alcoholic bars

New alcohol-free products appear on the shelves regularly. And they want to be sold. In the meantime, online shops specialising in non-alcoholic beverages are booming. In Germany, the trends are set mainly in the capital. Isabella Steiner and Katja Kauf run the online shop "Nüchtern Berlin", which sells more than 200 different wines, beers, gin and rum without alcohol. In 2020, they opened Germany's first alcohol-free Späti in Berlin-Kreuzberg, with a second branch added in 2021.

Food pairing without alcohol? Yes, it's possible!

Alcohol-free food pairing has also long been a topic in Michelin-starred gastronomy. Anna Schilling, sommelière at the Berlin star restaurant einsunternull, has been noticing an increasing demand for two or three years - and has reacted: "We offer a wine accompaniment and a non-alcoholic accompaniment to the menu, which don't differ much in price. Non-alcoholic is often chosen, almost too often," she says and laughs. Most of the time, however, there is no general rejection of wine behind the choice, but often just curiosity.

Nevertheless, a menu with non-alcoholic wines is out of the question for her, says Schilling. "I have not yet tried any non-alcoholic wines that have convinced me. They don't satisfy my palate and they are too sweet for me. That makes them problematic as food accompaniments."

In the meantime, einsunternull has made a name for itself in Berlin with unusual drink accompaniments. Schilling namely prepares the non-alcoholic alternatives herself. She experimented a lot in the first Lockdown and has been passionate about mixing ever since. "I put my heart and soul into these creations and try out many things at home. Tea is often used and also fermented drinks like kombucha. Imitating the feel of a good wine is very difficult, but I try to play with tannins and bitters," she explains her approach.

Room for improvement

Alcohol plays a fundamental role in wine as a flavour carrier. That is why wine connoisseurs are usually sceptical about attempts to take the "soul" out of wine. In fact, few alcohol-free wines have been able to convince the palates of demanding wine lovers so far. Johannes Leitz explains his product before the tasting with the words: "Now comes a product that cannot be compared with real wine. But a product that comes closest to wine. Significantly closer than any other alternative, especially when it comes to accompanying good food."

With new technologies, careful selection of base wines and growing experience, more winemakers will succeed in creating products more similar to the original in the future. Because the enormous selection of alcohol-free beers - and the now often astonishing sensory similarity to traditionally produced beer shows: it is only a matter of time before wines without alcohol will step out of the shadows.

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