Sober, so good

Happy, healthy, and enjoying a sobering drink.

Happy, healthy, and enjoying a sobering drink.

Can you call it wine if it has no alcohol? Your customers can, and the low- and no-alcohol wine market has been growing

Shudder. That’s what a well-respected and multi-award winning winemaker did when I mentioned this month’s wine topic to him. He shuddered. “But if wine doesn’t have alcohol in it, can we really call it wine?”

He had a point. Yet he also more generally agreed that, whether it be down to climate change or influential American wine critics’ personal tastes, more and more wine seemed to contain more and more alcohol. Red wines with 15 per cent ABV—and then some—are not uncommon in Australia today. Even our whites, such as the newly popular pinot gris, can often be found heading into the wine ABV stratosphere: 14 per cent, 14.5 per cent… remember this is only a half a degree away from some dry, pale sherries.

Perhaps as a result of this—and certainly in keeping with greater health concerns about alcohol abuse—the low- and in some cases no-alcohol wine market has been stirring. From small, niche winemakers to big multinational liquor companies, many wine manufacturers are investing in a new sector of the market, using both technology and some rather more simple and natural winemaking processes to create lower-alcohol wines.

It is unlikely this trend will become the new sauvignon blanc, but there’s enough of a trend to make anyone holding an on-premise liquor licence to sit up and take notice.

And there are three ways you can retro-fit the whole lower- or no-alcohol wine component into your list. One of these methods works well; the other two struggle, but I’ll run through them just the same.

Method #1. This is the thinking drinker’s approach. It involves no more sorcery or hocus-pocus than some intelligent wine buying for your inventory. And the key is to stick to wines that have a naturally lower level of finished alcohol. Certain grape varieties and certain wine regions (often working in combination) make this a very feasible and not prohibitively expensive operation. Regions with cooler climates will not cook the grapes on the vines as much as the hotter areas will; the result being lower possible alcohol levels in the picked grapes. Other regions seem to have developed a very natural and happy affinity with a grape variety, making for dry, structured, and critically esteemed wines that more often than not sit at about 10.5 per cent, rather than 15 per cent.

Yes, Hunter Valley semillon is this very wine. Given its availability, its LUC, and its refreshing suitability to a wide range of lighter foods, fish, and spicy dishes, it’s a naturally low-alcohol wine whose low-ABV you should be actively spruiking. And who knows: many customers might want lower alcohol wine, but not feel confident enough to ask for it. (Remember, light beer was once tarnished with a similar brush…) Other varieties and regions are also worth considering when hunting lower or ‘normal’ alcohol levels. Tasmanian pinot noir is rarely above 13.5 per cent. Some cooler climate cabernet is also a good choice, once again coming in under 14 per cent (look to Coonawarra and Margaret River).

Maison sells more than a million litres a year, and represents about two-thirds of the total non-alcoholic wine market

Method #2. Some clever winemaking can help produce lower alcohol wines. This can be achieved by natural methods, or by using technology.

Picking grapes earlier than normal is a natural enough process. This cuts down on the amount of sugar that’s ripened inside the grape. The downside: it also cuts down on flavour. Some winemakers have used this technique well, like Primo Estate in South Australia, who pick some of their colombard a little early, before it is blended into their lowish-alcohol white, la Biondina. At $11 LUC, this has Italian sellability combined with cool, clear and long acidity.

Other early picking produces a more fruit-sweet wine, and that’s what we’ve recently seen with moscato wines. Coming in at six per cent or so ABV, they recommend low alcohol levels, but besides drinking them as an accompaniment to breakfast— as some Italians do—one wonders how they might successfully translate to bar sales.

Method #3. Actively endorse and advertise non-alcoholic wines on your list and blackboards… Mmm… This would be a brave move, and a brave move because of one very important fact concerning non-alcoholic wine: Virtually 100 per cent of the stuff that I’ve tasted over the last year is dreadful. And the one brand that dominates non-alcoholic wine sales is universally so sweet— both in its rosé and white forms—that it might be better used as an ant trap than a beverage. Yet this brand, Maison, sells more than a million litres a year, and represents about two-thirds of the total non-alcoholic wine market, of which 80 per cent is sold through supermarkets. And that’s the killer: I’ve never heard of a bar successfully selling supermarket products to a profitable conclusion. Oh, there are packets of chips, I guess, but that’s the exception.

And there’s one other very important piece of market research that any operator needs to know about low-alcohol wine: the wine companies that have so far invested in the creation of these low-alcohol brands are clearly setting their sights on women. The ‘Early Harvest’ brand is but one example. That’s all I’m going to say about that.

But if you want to more stylishly and elegantly push a lower alcohol wine agenda on your premises, then it is both the men and the women—and those in between—who are interested in lower alcohol wines, not so much for health or diet reasons, but because such wines have subtler flavours. Wine contains alcohol; good wine has alcohol levels in balance; balanced wine is more drinkable. Which wine do you want to sell? Beware the trend, but sell wine you are proud of.

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