Nonalcoholic Wine Is Ready to Make a Big Splash - Imbibe Magazine Subscribe + Save

Low- and No-Alcohol Wines Are Ready to Make a Splash

When Jayma Cardoso began planning the drinks menu for Snow Lodge, her annual pop-up winter concept bar [turned supper club] held this year at the St. Regis in Aspen, Colorado, she knew she wanted to do things differently than she had before the pandemic. “I think after Covid, we—or just maybe me personally—started to think about this sort of idea of mindful drinking,” she explains, noting how she linked up with New York’s Boisson, a “dry drinks” store, to collaborate on alcohol-free cocktails and wine for her list.

Boisson sparkling nonalcoholic wine
Leitz alcohol-free sparkling rosé at Boisson NYC. | Photo by Eric Medsker

Cardoso is no stranger to the nightlife scene—she’s the founder of New York’s Goldbar, partner in LAVO, and a partner and founder of the Surf Lodge in Montauk. When she started imagining what having a no-alcohol (NA) selection would look like for the party-ready crowd in Aspen, she was thinking of just a few items—a couple of cocktails and a wine, perhaps—but quickly changed course to add a more substantial choice. “[They] exceeded all of our expectations,” she says of the products Boisson co-owner Nick Bodkins brought in, especially a sparkling alcohol-free rosé from German producer Leitz. “It was me and my entire team—so think of 45 people who all drink, our industry people,” she says about tasting the wines. “They’re like, ‘Let’s check this out,’ and are like, ‘Oh, my God.’”

As it turns out, Cardoso wasn’t the only one thinking about drinking less coming out of the pandemic—the alcohol-free portion of the Snow Lodge menu was a huge hit among patrons. “For après-ski I kept walking by tables and thinking, ‘I know that wine,’ ” she says. She was often surprised at the demographics of people who ordered from her NA wine selections, which skewed younger than she would have expected, and were often patrons that she knew regularly drank alcohol but, for whatever reason, were taking a break. “This product is out there, not just for the straight sober,” she says. “It’s actually for the people that drink.”

The success was so notable that Cardoso plans to expand the nonalcoholic offerings at Surf Lodge in Montauk this summer, adding multiple choices of NA rosé and more cocktails, a process she describes as exciting for the sheer number of options. “It’s great to have such balanced offerings between NA and alcohol,” she says about finalizing the list. “I actually ask for NA offerings at other restaurants, but it’s very rare they have what we have.”

The alcohol-free drinks sector has been on a major growth spurt. NielsenIQ data estimates that off-premise sales of no- and low-alcohol products reached $3.3 billion in 2021. But as alcohol-free cocktails and beer have garnered the majority of the splashy headlines, wine has been something of a laggard in critical acceptance. That may be beginning to change, though: On a wave of innovation and investment, many in the industry believe NA wine is—finally—gaining ground, with sales poised to grow more than 10 percent a year for the decade, according to Fact.MR.

Boisson Nick Bodkins
Boisson NYC co-founder Nick Bodkins. | Photo by Eric Medsker

That groundswell of interest in NA wine is something that Nick Bodkins has witnessed firsthand at Boisson, which he helped open in Brooklyn in 2021 (and which is expanding throughout the nation this year.) “The fact that we have entire shelves full of 50 different varietals of things—it’s only going to get better. We’re actively pulling the industry along with us, trying to say, ‘You need to be better, because our customers want it,’ ” Bodkins says about the rapid escalation in NA wine choices. He estimates there are around 75 alcohol-free wines on the market, about 25 of which he currently carries in his store—and those wines account for something close to half of his overall sales.

The alcohol-free wine that Bodkins features is typically made by dealcoholizing regular wine. Quality NA winemakers have adopted the same process that regular winemakers might use to reduce alcohol in high-end wines, for example, to bring a wine to under 14 percent ABV in order to avoid higher taxes. Instead of stopping there, though, they continue the process to take the wine down to under 0.5 percent ABV. 

Bodkins says getting from 0.5 percent alcohol to zero percent alcohol is the most challenging part, and requires more after-process tinkering—often with added sugar—to replace the mouthfeel of alcohol and to balance the acidity. But if you’re looking for an NA wine, he says, it’s worth searching around to land on the producer, alcohol level, and flavor profile that appeals to you. The difference now is that there’s enough variety to keep coming back for more. 

“People need to learn what their preferences are in the NA space in the same way that we all had to figure out when the right time to use an iPad was versus our phone or our computer—it’s a new category.”—Nick Bodkins, Boisson

“To be fair, there are really terrible wines at your [average] wine store. The difference is you go back into your wine store because there are 400 other bottles, and you’ve got somebody that you probably trust,” says Bodkins, who is a wine collector himself and aims to mimic the wine-buying experience at Boisson. “People need to learn what their preferences are in the NA space in the same way that we all had to figure out when the right time to use an iPad was versus our phone or our computer—it’s a new category.”

Bodkins says his typical recommendation for a new customer at Boisson is something sparkling. “The reason it works so well as an analog to wine with alcohol is that the sparkles, the effervescence, actually gives you that platform for the flavor profile to sit on,” he says. “It gives you the mouthfeel that’s very similar to what you get with alcohol.” 

Beyond sparkling wine, Bodkins says there are choices to recommend in every category—white, rosé, even red—and he sees room for exponential growth. “No one’s gotten French oak Chardonnay right yet. No one’s gotten a big California Cab right yet. Whomever it is that ends up getting it right will make a lot of money.”

Studio Null’s nonalcoholic sparkling rosé. | Photo by Doro Zinn/Studio Null

Bodkins points to newcomers like Studio Null, whose first release included three NA wines made with more esoteric grapes that wouldn’t be out of place on any list in Brooklyn or Silver Lake, as part of a promising new wave. Catherine Diao and Dorothy Munholland, friends from college who founded Studio Null in 2021, had watched the NA sector grow for years. “We waited and didn’t find any wines that we’d be proud to serve at a dinner party,” says Diao, who has a background in research, “so we actually went about going out and sourcing it ourselves.” 

For the pair, that meant honing their process to make something similar to the types of wines they’d seek out when they wanted a wine with alcohol. Diao says they decided to skip using bulk wine, and instead travel to family-owned vineyards in Europe to source their grapes. They eventually settled on three blends: a sparkling rosé and a Blanc Burgunder from Germany, and a Tempranillo-Syrah blend from Spain. They dealcoholize the finished wines through a gentle vacuum process in which the alcohol is distilled from the wine to around 0.3 percent ABV. “Quality in is quality out,” Diao says. “It’s really hard to make a high-quality wine with low-quality inputs.”

Putting the same principles of making good wine into making good NA wine has paid off. “We’ve had somms be able to pick out regions,” says Diao of the response from professionals at tastings. “We were kind of like, ‘Oh, okay, we’re on the right track.’” And their commitment to making their nonalcoholic wine as much like regular wine continues—they hope to add vintage labeling and come out with new selections every year.

“We’ve had somms be able to pick out regions. We were kind of like, ‘Oh, okay, we’re on the right track.'”—Catherine Diao, Studio Null

The success of NA wine isn’t just for start-up brands—the rapid growth of the category has established wine producers jumping in the game. Wölffer Estate, one of the top producers on Long Island, does a brisk business in still rosé and a host of other wine varieties, both from their vineyards and vineyards around the world. But come this summer, they’ll be on their second release of an NA sparkling rosé. 

This wasn’t Wölffer’s first foray into the arena. In 1996, they released a verjus, the pressed juice of unripened grapes, which undergoes no fermentation and therefore contains no alcohol. Verjus is known mainly for its culinary uses—in salad dressing, or for a hit of acid to finish a sauce—but winemaker Roman Roth says it became an underground favorite for some chefs, who were looking for something wine-like but with no alcohol, to drink. Capitalizing on this interest, two years ago they began bottling a version of the verjus with sparkling water as a ready-to-drink spritzer. 

nonalcoholic wines and cheese
Brie with an NA Studio Null wine. | Photo by Doro Zinn/Studio Null

But during the pandemic, co-owner Marc Wölffer noticed an uptick in consumption of alcohol-free wines in Europe, and wanted to explore a true NA wine for the brand. Roth agreed it was time. “I go home to my drinking mates in Germany and they all drink nonalcoholic beer or spritzer, like half beer, half seltzer,” he says. “That stigma that you have to drink alcohol is certainly going away.”

After tinkering around with concepts, they settled on a sparkling rosé sourced from a small organic family vineyard. Everything is done the same as if they were making regular wine, except harvest is optimized to select the grapes that work well with the dealcoholization process, which involves heating the juice up to 77 degrees Fahrenheit. “You do lose that glycerol, that oiliness, that comes from the alcohol,” Roth says. “It’s purposely picked early and fresh. You don’t want to get overripe. You don’t want to get any extra ripe flavors because it gets amplified and it adds to this oxidized, baked apple pie character.”

Through their three years of working on the project, Roth says they’ve been tinkering with the grape blend, adding Dornfelder to Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier for additional color and fullness. “It’s a little darker, but funnily enough, it actually makes it a little richer, so it tastes even better without the sweetness,” says Roth. “It’s nice to have these opportunities to make a different blend to balance the wine better.”

Roth sees the NA sparkling rosé as less of a departure from their regular offerings, and more of a continuation of their efforts to diversify in the face of increasing uncertainty about climate, shipping, and the economy. In addition to making wine from their own Long Island vineyard, Wölffer currently makes wine in Argentina and France, and produces cider as well as this NA wine. “Any company who doesn’t look at the future, that can be pretty rotten if you have all your eggs in one basket,” Roth says.

Miguel de Leon
Pinch Chinese wine director Miguel de Leon. | Photo by Eric Medsker

One of the more innovative categories of alcohol-free wine isn’t actually a wine at all, but wine proxies—drinks that attempt to approximate the complexity of wine, without the fermented grape juice. Miguel de Leon, wine director for New York City’s Pinch Chinese, currently has a selection of wine proxies from Canada’s Acid League on the menu. “Proxies aren’t wine, though the bases of the ones we use are juice from wine grapes, layered thoughtfully with other ingredients that evoke the wine experience,” de Leon says. He notes that the taste may not really be comparable to wine, but it has a level of complexity that soda or juice does not. 

And because it’s bottled like wine, in 750 ml bottles, he keeps the service process identical to how he’d pour regular wine, so customers can still have the ritual that comes with ordering wine. “We do serve it in wine glasses,” de Leon says. “Just because alcohol isn’t present, it doesn’t mean that the very things that make beverage service special—like a little bit of the ceremony of tasting and swirling in the glass, or the conversation that leads up to the pour—shouldn’t also be there.”

Creating these types of wine proxies requires a certain change in perspective. “It’s a reverse tasting note,” says English wine writer Matthew Jukes about choosing ingredients for Jukes Cordialities, a vinegar-based drink inspired by an old recipe for Haymaker’s Punch, an antecedent to the shrub. Jukes describes himself as “a bit of a Willy Wonka,” and creates his line of flavors (which can be mixed with still, sparkling, or tonic water) by macerating mixtures of fruits, herbs, spices, and other botanicals in a delicate Milanese apple cider vinegar. The Jukes 1 ‘Classic White,’ for example, lists pineapple, peach, cucumber, plum, and apple in the ingredient list—all flavors one might find in the tasting notes for a white wine.

Wine proxies at Pinch Chinese. | Photo by Eric Medsker

Jukes has been in the wine trade for more than 35 years, and he says the idea to create an alcohol-free beverage came to him after having lunch with a fashion editor friend who lamented having to order water at business events when she didn’t want to drink. This sentiment resonated, as Jukes may taste 100 wines on any given day. “At that moment I set out to make something you could drink instead of water that would give you the same pleasure as a beautiful glass of wine, but zero alcohol,” he says, also noting he wanted something dry and adept at pairing with fine cuisine. 

Leveraging his industry contacts, Jukes quickly found success in the U.K. market following his 2019 launch, where his line of wine proxies is on the list at spots such as Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, Core by Clare Smyth, the Tate Modern, and Fortnum and Mason, and can now be found in 10 countries around the world (including the United States). Jukes is especially excited about his newest addition to the lineup, a zero-alcohol sparkling “Pinot Noir,” made in a similar process but with pressed Pinot Noir grape skins, grown in England, as the sole flavoring. “The smell of Pinot Noir really is there, and my gentle apple cider vinegar mirrors the bitter taste and that lovely super-high acid, which of course is what I want from Blanc de Noir Champagne,” he says of the result, which he packages in a slim, elegant can. 

From his time in the wine trade, Jukes is cognizant that trends come and go. Any new sector sees a wave of successes and failures as new producers and products evolve and jostle for space. “There’s only a handful that will survive. Literally a handful,” he says of all the new products coming to market, competing for attention and longevity. “And one of those, of course, I hope is us.”

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