Lowering the bar

Lower-alcohol wines are flourishing in some markets and languishing in others. Christian Davis reports

The increasing interest in a healthier lifestyle, led by various governments, has resulted in growth of lower-alcohol, zero-alcohol and lower-calorie wines.

Wine Intelligence, the specialist market survey organisation, has just published its latest report, Lower Alcohol Wines – a Multi-Market Perspective.

Author David Thompson notes that, since the last report in 2014, Canada has shown “remarkable growth” in buyers and potential buyers of lower-alcohol drinks, while there has been a sharp fall in drinkers in France due to an attitude that they are not ‘real wines’. Similarly, a lack of product awareness has blighted the sector in neighbouring Belgium and the Netherlands.

On the other hand the US, the world’s largest wine market, is seen as promising and more than half of wine consumers in the UK are at least open to buying lower alcohol wines. Germany, where many wines are naturally and historically low in alcohol, relatively speaking, is seen as having potential as concerns about health abound.

Thompson notes that New Zealand has potential as a producer and consumer following its government’s initiative back in 2014.

In June of 2014, 13 Marlborough wine companies announced they were investing in the industry’s largest research and development project to explore better ways of producing high-quality, low-alcohol, low-calorie wines.


The seven-year programme, Lifestyle Wines, is a NZ$17m partnership between the Ministry for Primary Industries, New Zealand Winegrowers and 16 wineries. MPI would invest $8.13m in the programme and the wine industry $8.84m.

Whitehaven chief winemaker Sam Smail says his company invested in the programme because it saw a “great future” in wine that was lower in alcohol and had fewer calories.

“We wanted to potentially make great low-alcohol wines without losing the quality impact,” he says.

Low-alcohol wine was typically produced by extracting alcohol from finished wine, but this programme would focus on natural production using sustainable viticultural techniques and native yeasts.

Smail said at the time the aim was to pick fruit at a lower sugar level, but that would not come without its difficulties. “They can be quite green [if you pick them early] so you want ripe fruit with low sugar levels.

“We want to do it naturally without intervention.” Whitehaven has no low-alcohol wines on the market and Smail said it would be a few years before any came to fruition.

Mount Riley chief winemaker Matt Murphy said the company also invested in the programme to educate itself and apply that knowledge to producing quality, lower-alcohol wines.

Two New Zealand producers responded to Drinks International’s request for information and insight into the low-alcohol wine category. Accolade Wines says it is in support of the zero and low-alcohol category and its NZ group winemaker, Ben Glover, has been involved with the Lifestyle project. Accolade launched a zero-alcohol Echo Falls Sparkling Infusion in the UK in 2014. 

Specifically to the UK, Accolade says the whole non-alcohol still wine category has more than £6.5m in sales and is currently in growth, by 43% year on year (Nielsen 52 w/e December 5, 2015). It says the majority of buyers of Echo Falls Sparkling Infusion are thought to be women aged 25-35. Upcoming campaigns are planned to target expectant mothers and the health conscious. 

Accolade’s general manager, sales UK & Ireland, Rob Harrison says: “There is a trend that shoppers are becoming more health conscious, so awareness of calories and alcohol is becoming more of a consideration. We can see this through the increase in participants in Dry January. It will be interesting to look at the sales of our non-alcohol sparkling wines after the month concludes.”

Villa Maria communications manager Chantelle Harper says: “Demand for lighter-alcohol wines is a growing trend, with consumers seeking healthier lifestyles. The low-alcohol category suffered some initial perception problems due to some poor quality wines on the market. Villa Maria has focused on producing lighter alcohol wines that are high quality and made without compromising on taste. This is achieved by picking the grapes earlier to keep the sugar content lower, careful selection of yeasts used during fermentation and slightly longer skin contact to allow flavour development.

“We believe the demand for quality lighter-alcohol wines is only going to continue to accelerate as health conscious consumers seek out better lifestyle alternatives,” she says.

“The category is still relatively new so it’s early days to make a call on this. New Zealand being our first market to launch is going extremely well and growth is exponential. The UK and Australia are the only other markets currently.

“Our focus for now remains on refining and meeting demand for the current varieties,” adds Harper. 

The Villa Maria Private Bin Lighter collection features a Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio and rosé, each containing 25% less alcohol than their standard counterparts.

Mireia Torres Maczassek, general manager of Torres Priorat and Jean Leon wineries and responsible R&D & Innovation, tells Drinks International: “We introduced Natureo in 2007 and since then the range has been really successful. The wines are especially appreciated in more mature markets – mostly northern Europe and Canada – where we had seen this trend for wines that have practically no alcohol.

“These consumers probably think – just like we do – that wine is the perfect companion with food and don’t want to give up on that. Especially from the on-trade we get very positive feedback as the sommeliers and waiters are more in direct contact with the final consumer.

“They all seem to realise that a de-alcoholised wine does not really compete with ‘normal’ wine. It competes with the alternatives you have when you can’t drink a wine with alcohol. For example, when you have to drive or when you are pregnant, your alternatives are water, juice, soft drinks and so on.

“With my Mediterranean roots I still think that the ideal match for good food is regular wine with alcohol. But when this is not possible, the de-alcoholised wines do a great job.

“For the moment we will continue concentrating on our existing Natureo portfolio, which consists of Natureo White made of Moscatel, Natureo Red made of Syrah and Natureo Rosé made of Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon. But we have been also working on a 0.0 version of Natureo White, which we will soon launch in a test market,” Torres Maczassek adds.


German wine producer Langguth has launched a range of alcohol-free wines under its Blue Nun brand and recently repackaged them. UK sales director Armin Wagner said: “The Blue Nun Delicate products have performed at a growth rate of 6 % for rosé and almost 50% for white in the previous year. This is the result of a repackaging giving the products a more soft and feminine look and subsequent new listings in the UK retail.

He says Blue Nun alcohol-free red and white have been launched successfully in Asian markets and Australia.

He adds: “Blue Nun Delicates have a loyal following which has proved to us that this low-alcohol category is not only a fashion but worth investing in the quality of the products and in their consumer marketing.” 

Langguth’s major rival, Reh Kendermann, launched a range of  lower alcohol wines, B by Black Tower. They are 5.5% abv and only 55 calories per 125ml glass. Kendermann has now added two new products – B Fruitiful by Black Tower, a fruit-flavoured wine, and B Secco by Black Tower, with a light sparkling fizz. Both have an alcohol content of 5.5% abv.

Referring to the emergence of flavoured low-alcohol so-called fusion wines, Kingsland Drinks marketing controller Jo Taylorson says: “Consumers’ palates have been moving towards a sweeter taste profile. This has been seen by the surge in popularity of fruit ciders and cocktails in both the on and off-trade over recent years. An increasing number of wine consumers reach out to these drinks when the occasion arises, so wine fusion drinks – which are more similar in taste profile to ciders and cocktails – give them the opportunity to try something new, while staying in the wine category.

“Wine fusion drinks can be viewed by consumers who’d usually turn to cider and cocktails as a new way of entering the wine category. This could be a chance for the wine category to take back some market share, which in recent years has migrated to RTDs, ciders and cocktails,” says Taylorson.

In summary, most consumers buy lower-alcohol wines because of health concerns, wanting to lose weight, having to drive and/or avoiding the deleterious effects of drinking alcohol. Those not inclined to imbibe believe they do not taste nice, are not ‘wine’, do not know what the products are like and possibly are unaware of what is out there. 

Wine Intelligence’s Thompson says: “A crucial factor in determining whether or not this change (in perceptions) can gain momentum will be the ability of lower-alcohol wines to overcome what is, at present, probably still their biggest stumbling block – many people just don’t know about them.”

So, brands, over to you.