Wine Diaries Part 2: Drinking, mindfully

More and more people are cutting down their alcohol intake in a bid to improve health, ushering in a new wave of shoppers labelling themselves ‘mindful drinkers’. Could this be an opportunity for the skillful wine-maker to earn a share of a growing niche market? Perhaps, but only if they can deliver on flavour writes Tom Smart.

January 31st, 2019. The last day of ‘Dry January’. Retailers scurry around their stores busily ensuring shelves are bulging with every manner of boutique gin, smooth red, bubbly IPA; perhaps even a refreshing cider or five. After a month off, February 1st will surely be a stand-out day for alcohol sales?

Not this year. No sign of the tidal wave of alcohol-starved shoppers that everyone in-store had fingers and toes crossed for. A distinct lack of consumers desperately rushing to the tills grabbing at anything that might satisfy their thirsty desires. It all feels a little…normal.  

That’s because a growing number of shoppers are going through a change in mindset, leading to a break from what are perceived as normal purchasing habits. In the UK in particular, more and more young people are moving away from consuming alcohol altogether, spurred on by regular updates on the dangers of even moderate consumption by leading global health organisations. Others are taking note of ‘generation sensible’, and this provides an opportunity for all alcohol producers to broaden their product range by including low- or zero-alcohol products.

This new generation of ‘mindful drinkers’ doesn’t seem to want to ditch the alcohol in favour of a soft drink, instead opting for the very same traditional liquor minus the alcohol and exploring new and innovative alternatives such as Kombucha and other botanical-based beverages. Leading research body The IWSR believe mindful drinking is one of the key trends in the drinks industry right now, and the popularity of alcoholic alternatives was summed up in July last year when Club Soda’s Mindful Drinking Festival was attended by more than 15,000 people in London.

So there is certainly some buzz and lots of major players in the beverage industry are making plans accordingly. Heineken are hoping to get a jump on the competition and capture the beer side of the market by putting their 0% offering on tap in pubs as an alternative to soft drinks. Despite this, market share remains small with a nagging, legitimate promise of large-scale growth on the horizon. To put it into context, in the UK zero- and low-alcohol drinks account for just 1.3% of total alcohol sales, while in the U.S. this drops to 0.5%.

So how do these general figures translate to the wine industry? Zero-alcohol beer and lager are no new trend and account for the majority of total sales, leaving low- and zero-alcohol wine as niche products in what is already a niche market.

We have seen that consumers are ready to purchase lower-alcohol varieties, so why are wine producers not having as much success as brewers in the area? In short, consumers demand a product that meets taste expectations while also delivering on price. Low-alcohol wine has always had a stigma attached that it will lack depth compared to its alcoholic cousin, and as such the words ‘good’ and ‘non-alcoholic’ have always been considered to be oxymoronic when paired together as descriptors in this category.

The basis for the viewpoint in understandable when you delve into the chemistry of production. The majority of these wines start life as exactly that; wine. The full-alcohol variety fermented from grapes in the standard way. The alcohol is then removed, usually by distillation, which involves application of heat in order to remove the alcohol somewhere around 80 degrees Celsius. This heating stage can affect the flavour profile of the product, so alternative methods have been devised that require less heat such as vacuum distillation and reverse osmosis, but both are far more demanding as processes.

Where the main issue arises is that the alcohol is being physically removed, thus eliminating a layer of complexity from the product. Ethanol (the specific alcohol in alcoholic drinks) is a fantastic solvent, which means it dissolves many of the complex flavour molecules produced during fermentation, leading to that characteristic thickness and deep profile help by a good wine. It also has a relatively low boiling point and so is responsible for a substantial portion of the aromas that influence your taste-buds before drinking. Remove this and you are naturally left with a product that tastes very different on the palate and smells just as different on the nose. Think of it like removing the lettuce from a BLT. You think you don’t need the ‘L’, but without it the product just isn’t the same.

These additional processes also have an impact on the price of production, although this can be easily offset due to a lack of or lower duty depending on actual alcohol content. What this all means is that low-alcohol wine is a challenge to even the most skilled of wine makers, and an even greater challenge to the consumer in understanding the product fully.

But with no market leaders in the area there is a serious opportunity for each and every vineyard to leave their stamp within a niche that promises to move into the big leagues. Major supermarkets are increasing their purchasing of such products, responding to public demand much like the case of vegan wines profiled in the first of our wine diaries. This year Dry January brought with it a web-based flood of discovery-style articles from major outlets (e.g. BBC, The Independent), which only serve to fuel the vehicle of change and offer the educational support that consumers are crying out for.

Also on the horizon is the challenge of legal cannabis, expected to put all alcohol categories under strain in some countries as different fusion drinks make their way to market.

Given this it seems a must that producers should diversify their portfolio and seize the opportunity that a young and expanding market provides. While zero- and low-alcohol wines pose a challenge in terms of production, they do come with a clear route to market if a full flavour profile can be achieved.

The mindful drinkers are here to stay, so why not let them fill their glasses with your product?