This is a guest post written by Ian James Blessing who is an ex-sommelier at a Michelin starred restaurant, alcohol free beverage afficianado and co-founder of All the Bitter. Which we hope will land in Australia soon. You can check out all their links.
Ian has written a fabulous piece on enjoying alcohol free wine. He has really nailed it! These are all the things I have been thinking, but did not / could not articulate.
He wrote this a couple of weeks ago. On International Wine Day. It could change the way you view alcohol free wine! Grab a glass and get ready to change the way you see and drink an alcohol free wine.
Note: some of the content mentions products are not available in Australia. I have tried to find local alternatives where possible.
𝗦𝘁𝗲𝗽 𝟭: 𝗖𝗵𝗮𝗻𝗴𝗲 𝘆𝗼𝘂𝗿 𝗺𝗶𝗻𝗱𝘀𝗲𝘁
Non-alcoholic wine is wine. It might not taste like the Napa cab or chardonnay that you’re used to, but it’s not just grape juice, either. It has been fermented and then de-alcoholized, which really just wrecks what it used to be (that’s why you’ll see grape concentrate and natural flavors on the ingredients label—that stuff is generally necessary to get it back to a semblance of wine). The sooner you can change your perspective and appreciate NA (non-alcoholic) wine for what it is, not what you want it to be, the sooner you’ll find some enjoyment in it. The right meal helps tremendously with this. Try Luminara chardonnay (Note: try this one instead) with a buttery, lemony seafood pasta, Leitz pinot noir with earthy mushrooms and salmon, or Ariel cab with a steak. Is it going to be the same home run pairing you remember? Probably not, but the ritual plays a huge role in appreciation here.
𝗦𝘁𝗲𝗽 𝟮: 𝗟𝗲𝘁 𝗶𝘁 𝗯𝗿𝗲𝗮𝘁𝗵𝗲
Alcoholic wine generally gets better with some air, and the same is true of NA wine. In fact, the difference is often more staggering. I’ve opened many NA wines that ranged from bad to simply disjointed (a fancy wine word meaning not harmonious, or out of balance). With a couple hours of air, or better yet the next day, these wines improve 9 times out of 10. They come together, find balance, and are far more enjoyable. Remember perspective here, though: a day of air isn’t going to make the wine you dislike suddenly taste like that Meiomi pinot noir you’re missing. It is, however, likely to improve things significantly.
As with alcoholic wine, there is a general science here. Oxygen helps to evolve flavors, and surface area matters. 2 ounces in a glass is going to evolve faster than 5 ounces in a glass, and both of those will evolve much faster than a bottle that has been opened, poured a bit out, and then resealed (like when coming back to a bottle the next day). So what’s the best practice? If you have the foresight, open a bottle, pour out an ounce and taste it (for science), then cork it and set it on the counter until tomorrow. If you’ve only got a little time, invest in a decanter. Pour the whole bottle into the decanter and serve it two hours later. (BTW a large mason jar will work the same way, or any other large vessel.)
Again, as with alcoholic wines, there is a sweet spot for oxygen. If you’ve ever left a couple ounces of wine on the counter overnight and come back to it the next day (don’t lie—if you’re in these forums there is a decent chance you’ve done this), you may have found that it has oxidized, or lost almost all of its flavor and aroma, become vinegary, nutty, etc. The same applies to a whole opened and resealed bottle. Between 1-3 days is generally good (and will actually improve during this time), but you may start to notice a decline after day 4, and definitely after a week.
𝗦𝘁𝗲𝗽 𝟯: 𝗦𝘁𝗮𝗿𝘁 𝗮𝗱𝗱𝗶𝗻𝗴 𝘀𝘁𝘂𝗳𝗳
The NA wines we purchase almost always have things added, so why not take it one step further? There are a number of complimentary flavors you can add to your wine for a flavor boost. A few of these things get mentioned here frequently, and I’ll cover those, but also suggest a few more you may not have thought of.
𝗕𝗶𝘁𝘁𝗲𝗿𝘀: wine inherently has some bitterness to it, and bitter in general adds a satisfying “bite” that reminds us we’re drinking an adult beverage, not just juice. More importantly, cocktail bitters tend to have a host of flavors that compliment wines. For reds, try things like chocolate bitters, cardamom, Angostura, cherry, plum, or herbal bitters like sage. For whites, stick to lighter fruit bitters like orange, lemon, grapefruit, etc. Hopefully it goes without saying, but please only use alcoholic bitters if you are comfortable adding a few dashes of high-ABV to your drink. 2-3 dashes won’t raise your glass above 0.5%, but more than that will. Regardless, you’re not going to get drunk, but only you know your tolerances. For an alcohol-free bitters alternative, All The Bitter works very well. In either case, try starting with 1 dash (or 1 FULL squeeze of the bulb in dropper-top bottles) added to a single glass, and increase from there, up to 4-5 dashes depending on the wine. Give it a little swirl, with your pinky out preferably, to incorporate.
𝗡𝗔 𝗩𝗲𝗿𝗺𝗼𝘂𝘁𝗵: vermouth can add a very complimentary flavor profile to your wines. Try a sweet vermouth like Lyre’s Spirit Co Aperitif Rosso (or try this Palermo Rosso) in red wines or a their Aperitif Dry in white wines. Play around with the amount, but 1/4 of an ounce per glass is probably good. Vermouth has a host of complex herbal, bitter, and citrus flavors, and can really amp up the flavor of a dull wine or balance a sweeter wine.
𝗔𝗺𝗮𝗿𝗼: same idea, but something I hadn’t tried until recently, is adding a dash of Drink The Pathfinder to red wines (or chinotto or Palermo Amarino). Honestly, it was a revelation. If you’ve made it this far in the post, congratulations, you’ve earned this: go ahead and pour yourself a glass and add 1/4 oz Pathfinder. You’re welcome. (Note that if you’re not sober, just cutting back, you can absolutely add 1/4 oz of regular vermouth or amaro to achieve the same effect and a very, very low overall ABV).
𝗩𝗶𝗻𝗲𝗴𝗮𝗿: wait, vinegar flavor in wine is a bad thing, right? Typically, yes, but when added in very small amounts (drops) to a glass of non-alcoholic wine, you can add texture, bite, and balance sweetness. The same general rules apply: dark vinegar like balsamic for reds, light vinegar like champagne vin or apple cider vinegar for white wines.
𝗦𝗺𝗼𝗸𝗲𝘆 𝘁𝗲𝗮: if you haven’t picked up some lapsang souchong yet, now is your chance. This smoked black tea is wonderful on its own as a hot tea, but is brilliant as a cocktail ingredient in addition to NA whiskey or tequila to simulate mezcal/scotch. AND, same idea as above, in small amounts it can add some wonderful complexity to your red wines. Don’t add much, we’re not trying to water the thing down or make it taste like a campfire, but in small amounts it’ll add another layer of flavor. Better yet, try adding a bit of For Bitter For Worse Smokey 56 to achieve the same effect without diluting your drink. (FBFW The Saskatoon will also work nicely: different flavor profile, but it’s very akin to red wine). Got some pu’erh lying around? I haven’t tried it yet, but I imagine that any complex tea like this might work nicely in red wines.
𝗚𝗲𝘁 𝗰𝗿𝗲𝗮𝘁𝗶𝘃𝗲: the above suggestions are all flavors that are found in various wines (smoke, for instance, is sometimes associated with syrah from the Northern Rhone Valley—weirdly, so is black olive and bacon fat, although I wouldn’t necessarily suggest adding those things). What flavors do you enjoy in your alcoholic wines? Try to think of something equivalent from the NA world and add a little bit. Play around, have fun! It’s just wine, after all…it’s not that serious.
𝗦𝘁𝗲𝗽 𝟰: 𝗡𝗼𝘁 𝗮𝗹𝗹 𝘄𝗶𝗻𝗲𝘀 𝗮𝗿𝗲 𝗰𝗿𝗲𝗮𝘁𝗲𝗱 𝗲𝗾𝘂𝗮𝗹
I’m not going to make any specific recommendations here, but I will say that, in general, white (& rose) wines and sparkling wines tend to be more successful than red wines. With red wines we expect big, mouth filling, robust flavors. That’s simply harder to achieve when you strip 15% alcohol away. White wines tend towards the more crisp, high acid spectrum—once you remove the alcohol, you’re still left with a fairly satisfying, refreshing, palate cleansing beverage. Better yet are the sparkling wines: same idea, but add bubbles for texture. If you’re a white/sparkling wine drinker, congrats!
𝗦𝘁𝗲𝗽 𝟱: 𝗥𝗲𝗳𝗲𝗿 𝗯𝗮𝗰𝗸 𝘁𝗼 𝘀𝘁𝗲𝗽 𝟭
You’re going to try all of these hacks, and your wine still isn’t going to taste like the cabernet that you remember so fondly. It’s going to get more interesting and enjoyable, but it’s not going to be the same. Remember that you’re not drinking a full proof glass of wine, and try to enjoy it for what it is.