No one will be surprised to hear that there’s a bounty of nonalcoholic wines available these days. But standing in front of the wall of them at Boisson, a retailer that specializes in such N/A drinks (wines, spirits, RTD cocktails, etc.), it’s impressive how far we’ve come. The category has grown exponentially in the past few years and encompasses both made-from-grapes wines, in which the alcohol has been removed, as well as an emerging group of bottlings that incorporate a wide variety of ingredients, infusions and nonalcoholic fermentations. Wine accounts for 60 percent of sales at Boisson, Robby Nelson, head of on-premise sales, told me.
At Boisson’s flagship shop in Brooklyn, Punch tasted through a couple dozen nonalcoholic wines and wine alternatives, chosen to span the spectrum of approaches to N/A wine. I was joined by Nikita Malhotra, beverage manager for New York’s Momofuku Ko, along with Punch editor-in-chief Talia Baiocchi, senior editor Chloe Frechette, director of network development Allison Hamlin and associate editor Mary Anne Porto.
According to the FDA, wines that have less than 0.5 percent ABV can be labeled “nonalcoholic” whereas those with 0.0 percent ABV can be called “alcohol-free.” The majority of the more traditional wines we tasted quoted less than 0.5 percent ABV on their labels, an important distinction for those abstaining from alcohol altogether. Also of note: The majority of these N/A bottlings have around 30 calories per serving—a quarter of that in a glass of white wine—and ingredients (preservatives and all) must be listed, noteworthy as this is something many in the traditional wine industry have been advocating for for years.
In general, our group found more to love in the wine alternatives than in the wines where the alcohol had been extracted. In reference to the latter, Baiocchi asked: “Can you make a wine that tastes like where it’s from in this process?” Understandably, probably not. The process of extracting alcohol is rough on a wine—seemingly robbing it of aroma and texture, which is why many had a faceless quality that left us wanting more. One thing that was also uniformly missing was a finish on the palate, something that in wine is achieved via the evaporative quality of alcohol. Without it, we found many fell flat. Nelson told me that sparkling dealcoholized wines are most popular at Boisson, which makes good sense in that the bubbles can give that little uptick in the texture that still N/A wines struggle to achieve.
By contrast, the wine alternatives offer a path that is largely free of comparison, and while some stray too far from the idea of wine to reasonably bear any mention of it on the label, they seem to offer new opportunities for pairing. Many of them incorporate tea (which has tannins, similar to grapes), fruit juices, herbs and spices, and specialized yeasts that ferment without creating alcohol. The best of them offer a new perspective on what we look for in wine (structure, aroma, character). Naturally, there were also some misses: bottles that tasted like kombucha, raw vinegar or healthy juice-bar fare. Others recalled what Frechette described as “Martinelli’s apple juice,” so much so that we began plotting bottlings on a scale between traditional wine and sparkling fruit juice. One conjured Vicks VapoRub or even Barbasol. When a bottling did strike the right chord, however, it could stand in for a ritual drink with its own layered flavors and intrigue. “That’s what I want from this,” said Baiocchi. “Get weird.”
Wölffer Estate Spring in a Bottle
A nonalcoholic, super-carbonated sparkling rosé that scratches the itch better than any of the others we tasted. For the past two years, winemaker Roman Roth has collaborated with a producer in Germany’s Rheinhessen to make a dealcoholized blend of organic grapes (pinot noir, pinot meunier, St. Laurent and dornfelder). “The carbonation is aggressive,” said Hamlin, noting a welcome characteristic after a parade of flat-falling bottlings. A staple on the North Fork of Long Island since the late 1980s, Wölffer Estate fuels the Hamptons with copious bottles of rosé every summer. And while it would be easy enough to keep churning out vacation wine, over the past decade, next-gen proprietors Joey and Marc Wölffer has kept her family business from being a one-hit wonder, with innovations in labeling, rosé cider and even verjus, a very tart, unfermented drink made from unripe grapes.
- Price: $20
This ripe, juicy, dealcoholized white wine represents a partnership between Boisson and Johannes Leitz, an iconic producer in Germany’s Rheingau. At this point, Leitz may be as well-known for his evocative site-specific rieslings as he is for his work in the nonalcoholic wine sphere. Beginning with riesling (obviously) he started his line of Eins Zwei Zero in 2007 after being diagnosed with a medical condition that no longer permitted him to consume alcohol. Preserving the aromatics throughout the dealcoholization process is very tricky, something that Leitz has worked hard to achieve. For this bottling, Leitz blends German Müller-Thurgau with Spanish aíren, for a full-bodied white. Whereas some of the dealcoholized wines can feel thin or hollow, “this one feels a little more vinous,” said Malhotra.
- Price: $20
Three Spirit Blurred Vines Sharp
“This is the first one where I’m like, Give me another glass,” said Baiocchi. The fan favorite of this tasting, Sharp is a wine alternative from U.K. company Three Spirit, a certified B Corporation. Working with a team that includes a winemaker from urban winery London Cru, a Noma alum to figure out the proper yeast strain for alcohol-free fermentations, and Henrietta Lovell from the Rare Tea Company, Three Spirit launched this blend of teas and herbs, juices and adaptogens last June. The idea was to evoke the feeling of a white wine, rather than trying to precisely replicate one. The sleeper hit ingredient for us was a little hit of jalapeño, which might sound like a strange addition, but it provided a green pepper edge and the teeniest spice kick to give a real finish to the drink. We also loved Three Spirits’ other Blurred Vines bottling, Spark, a rosé that has a dash of cayenne to the same great effect.
- Price: $24
“I like this for texture,” said Malhotra, who pairs this sparkling rosé bottling with a sweet potato and dashi dish as part of her nonalcoholic pairing menu at Ko. Muri was started by Murray Peterson, a former distiller at Copenhagen’s forward-thinking Empirical Spirits. He works alongside Ioakeim Goulidis, who worked in Noma’s fermentation lab. Both of these histories are keenly present in their work. We tasted a few of Muri’s offerings—all of which we agreed would be welcome paired with food—but this currant- and pomegranate-scented one was our favorite. It’s the product of smoked lacto-fermented rhubarb, carbonic-macerated (a technique used widely in natural red wines) raspberries and gooseberries, and kefir made with pink peppercorns. All of these processes add up to something frothy, juicy and extremely drinkable.
- Price: $38
NON Stewed Cherry & Coffee
This Aussie offering is another relative alien when compared to wine, but one that we were game to get to know. Malhotra described it as “coffee and Tabasco,” getting at the dark and tangy quality of the drink. NON, which relies on a base of verjus for its offerings, was founded by Aaron Trotman and his partner Miranda in Melbourne. This take is infused with cherries and coffee, as well as spices like pink peppercorns, garam masala and allspice. It pushes the limits of what could be considered a wine alternative, but we loved the tannin, bitterness and savory depth of it, and the potential it has as a nightcap.
- Price: $30