Dec 14, 2023 Drinks
Is non-alcoholic wine just grape juice? When I was young, my parents used to buy a delicious, full-bodied grape juice sold by a winery. It was sweet and rich and suitable for kids to sip slowly with their chicken nuggets and chips. The non-alcoholic wine I tasted for this story was very much not that drink. Theoretically, all of our examples had been through the fermentation process (and perhaps some ageing, too) that regular alcoholic wine goes through, before having the alcohol steamed out of the liquid via distillation, or separated out by pressurised reverse osmosis. This means that the wine retains, with varying results, the bitter bite of booze.
When I reached out to a retailer about their non-alcoholic options, they told me that far too many of the ones they’d tried were overly sweet. I understood immediately what they meant — a couple of the wines below have had sugar added to them, and a couple more include grape juice and must in the mix. I think it’s because the alcohol-removal process can result in a strange muskiness — as if something is slightly off — that producers attempt to mask with sugar.
It surprised me how similar the wines smelled when you unscrewed the cap, the red wines in particular. (In fact, the red wines fared better across the board, in relation to my personal taste buds.)
I’m unsure how much success these drinks would enjoy with someone who has never had wine before; they’re very much for people who are chasing the real thing but can’t have it, for one reason or another. As a drink, singular without context, they don’t really make any sense — I would point those people towards the NON range, which are non-alcoholic wine ‘alternatives’ but are not wine. (Instead, they blend a variety of diverse ingredients together with verjus.)
A word of warning, here: many of these drinks are not completely non-alcoholic, but contain a residual amount of alcohol (less than 0.5%). This is something that became obvious to me after I tried about six of them in a row and began feeling hot and sick, the way I feel when I drink alcohol. (A colleague suggested I spit them out into a cup, like a real professional wine judge.)
The non-alcoholic wine category has expanded greatly in recent years, and a number of new booze-free-specific retailers — such as The Chiller (thechiller.co.nz), which gifted Metro some of the bottles I taste-tested below — have entered the market to offer drinks from all over. After asking people for their most popular drinks, I came up with the range below, but, as usual, this taste test is by no means comprehensive.
Vallformosa 0.0% Sparkling
It pops and spurts after you take the cork out — just like the real thing — and its main flavour is ‘bubbly’, but this non-alc sparkling was my favourite of the bunch. It has a delicate, smooth undertone that’s almost tea-like. The ‘alcohol’ flavour is mild, but, when combined with the bubbles, it gives a veneer of acidity. I say this in a positive way — it sort of reminded me of sucking on barley sugar, which I have done a lot of as barley sugar was the only thing you could eat during the World Vision 40-Hour Challenge.
Edenvale Premium Reserve Sparkling Shiraz
First thought: yum! This is basically sparkling grape juice, which is good — I’m not entirely sure it hits the brief of being a non-alcoholic wine, because it doesn’t have an alcoholic complexity to it. But judging it as an independent drink, I think it delivers. “I would actually drink this,” I wrote in my notes.
Plus + Minus Shiraz 2021
This shiraz has grape skin extract in it, and possibly I only think this because I learned that just before I tasted it, but the taste is reminiscent of grape skin. When I was a kid, I preferred to eat my grapes peeled, so I assume the makers added the extract here to introduce a bit more sharpness to the wine — it’s acidic and bitter when sitting in your mouth, which creates the illusion of alcohol, and swallows like wine.
Torres Natureo Rosé
“Inoffensive!” I wrote. (It likely speaks ominously for this whole exercise that I count inoffensive in the ‘good’ category.) I also noted, “When you breathe out, you do get that alcohol taste.” Uh, okay, past me? I think I meant that it finishes really nicely — and when served cold-cold, is a pleasant drink.
This seems like the non-alcoholic version of that cheap and cheerful red wine you rummage for on the bottom shelf during your younger years. I like it! Fruity — if you don’t really think of it as a wine, it has that full-frontal grapeness that is missing in the others. Ribena-ish.
Sobriety Society Shiraz Tempranillo
This had quite a musty smell from the bottle. It has more flavour than some of the others on this list — actually evoking the actual fruit it’s made from, perhaps. It’s also acidic, like drinking lemon juice (without the advantage of being good for you). While it lacks the fullness of alcohol, it isn’t bad.
Darling Cellars Sauvignon Blanc
I tasted this right after the Oddbird white and wrote, “Much better than Oddbird.” There’s quite a step up in between. This Darling Cellars sav blanc has more bitterness and not as much sweetness (which may be because there’s added grape juice instead of added sugar). However, drinking it is like drinking sad wine — there’s an inescapable lack of bite that stops you from sipping.
Darling Cellars Shiraz
You can really taste the added tannins in this one — it’s dry and rubs on your tongue. Like the other examples, this shiraz had an uncanny wine smell, with the whiff of candy-sugar underneath, right out of the bottle. Overall, it’s reminiscent of a watered-down alcoholic wine, which may be due to the alcohol removal process, tbh (after they filter the booze out, they need to add water back into the concentrate). But, again, pretty inoffensive.“I wouldn’t mind drinking it,” say my notes. The highest of praise!
La Gioiosa Sparkling
An Italian sparkling that was the bubbliest of all the bubbles I tried (it made an effort to escape the bottle), I thought this was just fine, although it was a bit bland and didn’t really taste like anything. “I guess I’m not getting much from it?” There is added ‘grape must’ — the crushed juice from the first stage of making wine that contains skins, seeds and stems.
Thomson & Scott Noughty Sparkling Chardonnay
Much stronger smell than the other sparkling wines. This non-alc chardonnay tastes like mandarins that are about to go off. It’s also not very bubbly, a characteristic I liked in the other sparklings, maybe because bubbliness adds another level of sensation and texture.
Oddbird Low Intervention Organic White No 1
The place I bought this wine from didn’t actually recommend it, but I fell for its “low intervention” tagline and minimal branding, which, you know, means that I am a fool. It’s very candyish — so unpleasantly sweet that it’s offensive. (The makers have actually added sugar.) You get an initial hit of sweetness, and then a weird tang from the ‘alcohol’ in the aftertaste.
Tread Softly Pinot Noir 2022
A drinker who sees “pinot noir” on this bottle then expects the wine to taste like pinot noir is going to be a problem for this drink — instead, the wine is soft, lighter in colour, and doesn’t taste at all like a glass of noir. It’s sour in the mouth, like a Warhead lolly, but finishes weak and watery. Tread carefully.