Zero-alcohol wines: Why all the buzz around alcohol-free alternatives?

Supplied imagery of wines and judges at the 2022 New World Wine Awards
What's with all the buzz around zero-alcohol wines? We found out. Photo credit: Supplied

'Sober-curious' has been a bit of a buzzword of late, with more and more people jumping off the booze bandwagon in favour of total sobriety or a reduced intake - typically to improve their mental and physical well-being.

Sobriety and the 'sober-curious' movement have gathered momentum in recent years, largely due to seismic shifts in lifestyle. Whereas chain-smoking and neat whiskeys during a nine-to-five à la Mad Men was once the norm, the last decade has seen greater awareness around health and wellbeing, encouraging more people to ditch the grog and greasy foods in favour of a healthy, balanced diet, little to no alcohol and regular exercise. Lockdowns in response to the COVID-19 pandemic are also believed to have played a part, spurring people to use the sudden abundance of free time to kickstart healthy habits.

And according to a study published in The Lancet, alcohol consumption in New Zealand is lower than it's been in 30 years, with the millennial cohort - those in the 26 to 40 age bracket - largely responsible for paving the way to a firewater-free future.

In 2022, it's also never been easier for the 'sober-curious' or teetotal among us to enjoy a tasty tipple with friends without the FOMO - or a pounding headache the next morning. Brands such as Jacob's Creek, Seedlip, Lyre's and AF Drinks have carved out corners in the market for non-alcoholic beverages, spanning alcohol-free spirits, wines, beers, ciders and ready-to-drink options (RTDs). With non-alcoholic whiskeys, gins and even rosés now on offer, those braving the dry doldrums or testing the sober waters can still enjoy their favourite beverage - sans the booze.

In response to both increasing customer demand and continued industry innovation, New World introduced 'Zero Zones' in 2021, where shoppers can easily find and explore their range of non-alcoholic beverage alternatives. Last year, two zero-alcohol wines won Bronze at the New World Wine Awards; Jacob's Creek Unvined Alcohol Removed Australia Rosé 2019 and Jacob's Creek Unvined Alcohol Removed Sparkling NV. Impressively, both wines were awarded their bronze medals after being blind-tasted and judged within their respective varietal classes (Rosé and Sparkling) - meaning they were assessed alongside their alcoholic counterparts, and still managed to outperform the majority. 

New World Wine Awards 2022 Associate Judge Mary Blair.
New World Wine Awards 2022 Associate Judge Mary Blair. Photo credit: Supplied

Two locally crafted non-alcoholic beers (Bach Brewing's ALL DAY IPA and Garage Project's Tiny) also made the New World Beer & Cider Awards Top 30 in 2022 - a first in the Awards' history. They flew off shelves as two of the top best-selling winners, showing just how in demand great-tasting non-alcoholic beverages are.

While still a very small part of the wider beer and wine categories, the zero-alcohol segment is growing at a phenomenal pace. Over the past year, zero-alcohol beer sales alone have increased by 40 percent, and sales of zero-alcohol wine have doubled. 

New World Wine Awards 2022 rose line up.
New World Wine Awards 2022 rose line up. Photo credit: Supplied

With so much buzz around alcohol-free options, now's a great time to get a better understanding of the hype - particularly around the increasingly popular zero-alcohol wines. To get the lowdown on how this new variety of vino (some of which is barely distinguishable from the real deal), I was invited to attend the judging for the New World Wine Awards down in a very wet and rainy Blenheim last month. 

It was unlike anything I'd ever seen; rows and rows of wine being meticulously smelled, swirled, sipped (and spat out) by a myriad of vino virtuosos. In the storage room adjacent to the judging chamber were tables upon tables of the scrupulously organised wines and beers to be carefully judged and considered. 

After getting a rundown of the highly-intensive judging process, I was escorted over to meet Mary-Therese Blair, perhaps better known by her moniker 'Mermaid Mary'. An associate judge for the New World Wine Awards, she is a WSET-educated wine writer and judge who is on a quest to make wine more accessible (and if at all possible, fun). As the wine writer for Cuisine Magazine and wine columnist for New Zealand House and Garden, Blair is an expert on all things, you guessed it, wine, and was the perfect person to talk to about the burgeoning zero-alcohol sector.

Judge Natalie Christensen hard at work.
Judge Natalie Christensen hard at work. Photo credit: Supplied

Discussing the catalysts behind the surge in popularity, Blair agreed that increased awareness around health and wellness is encouraging more people to seek out alcohol-free alternatives. It's no secret that alcohol isn't exactly a superfood, with excessive consumption linked to high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, liver disease, cancers and a weakened immune system.

"People have more knowledge now than they've ever had before and more interest in their health. And it is a global trend that people are drinking less. We're also seeking a lot more transparency. We want to know what's in things and what is good for us. People are just more in charge of their health as well," she explained. 

"People just are less interested in drinking. And this is not a trend. This is the future happening now. Like you see in the alcohol and drinks business, you see trends all the time. You know, we've just come out of the seltzer, and rosé is now huge. But this is not a trend. This is the start of what the future is going to look like in that space." 

Mary Blair meeting with fellow panel judges to discuss scores
Mary Blair meeting with fellow panel judges to discuss scores. Photo credit: Supplied

There was once a time not too long ago where women who refused a tipple at a get-together were excitedly asked, "Are you pregnant?" - but that is no longer the case. It's now far more common for people to have alcohol-free options on hand in their kitchen ready for guests who are driving, underage or yes, pregnant - or those who simply don't like to drink. The benefit of alcohol-free spirits, wine or RTDs is that sober guests can still feel like they're part of the shindig - and haven't been ostracised to the kid's corner with their juice box in tow. 

"Once upon a time, it'd be like, 'Are you pregnant?' That's not the question anymore. It's becoming more and more socially acceptable and less queried as to why you're not drinking, which is a really, really good thing. 

"Alcoholic beverages have always been there, and if you didn't want one, your options were water, juice or a Coke. I mean, they're not very good options - people want to feel part of the celebration. When I was pregnant, we were invited to a champagne breakfast. So I was like, I don't want sparkling water. I want a bottle of something nice, you know? So I brought along my own bottle of non-alcoholic sparkling wine," Blair shared.

Wine judging flight.
Wine judging in progress. Photo credit: Supplied

Our chat was punctuated with sips of three different zero-alcohol wines that have been entered in this year's Awards - a rosé, a white and a red. I'm no sommelier, but the wines were delicious - and to the untrained palette, tased almost identical to the real thing. Despite being void of actual alcohol, the three options do a good job of replicating the mouthfeel of their alcoholic counterparts, reminding you you're still drinking wine, not grape juice. 

"It's very hard to compare alcoholic and non-alcoholic wine. So when briefing people or judges, I'm like, you are never going to get non-alcoholic wine that tastes exactly the same as an alcoholic wine. What you want to come out of it is something that is an enjoyable beverage that you will be happy to have if you choose not to be drinking. You want something that offers the same experience as wine, but isn't," Blair added.

It was at this point I had a small epiphany. As someone who isn't a big drinker (not counting ages 18 to 21), these wines before me suddenly made perfect sense. I'm sure many of us accept a glass of wine without really wanting it because at the end of the day, alcohol is a social lubricant; if everyone is wet and you're dry, it isn't conducive to the most pleasurable experience - there's gonna be chafing.

But what these zero-alcohol options do so well is that you still get a similar experience, but for people like me who don't always enjoy the taste of alcohol, you can actually enjoy the drink and its flavours - and not get FOMO at the same time. 

Associate Judge Mary Blair.
Associate Judge Mary Blair. Photo credit: Supplied

"Most people walking into a supermarket to buy a bottle of wine aren't an expert; they just want something nice they can drink with friends. And if for some reason they're drinking in moderation or just don't feel like drinking, this is a really, really good option," Blair agreed.

"And the really exciting thing in this space is the range is growing. It's just really great for people to have options and with the attitude that it's not like, 'what's wrong with you' if you're not having a drink. New Zealand has a drinking culture. I'm from Ireland, which most certainly has a drinking culture. And you know, the amount of times people will be like, you know, 'why aren't you drinking?' And less and less, that question is getting asked; there's a respect around it."

To continue normalising the shift in drinking culture, Blair advises everyone to have at least one zero-alcohol wine or spirit on-hand for any sober or sober-curious house guests.

"That continues to make it normalised. I had friends of mine who have hospitality venues and they complained about Dry July because people don't go out as much. And I'm like, okay, cool - what's your non-alcoholic offering? And they're like, 'Oh, we have Coke'. And I'm like, 'No, no, - who wants to go out on a date and have dinner and a Coke?' So I think just everyone stepping their game up, having some great options and pushing the dial a little bit further; it's saying, go out, have a good time, have dinner, have a glass of a glass of wine, and it's no big deal.

"Hopefully in the not too distant future, it will be second nature for cafes that have a liquor licence to also have non-alcoholic beverages as part of their normal menu."

Newshub travelled to Blenheim for the judging of the New World Wine Awards courtesy of New World.

Some responses have been lightly edited for length and/or clarity.