When less truly does mean more…

There is something decidedly unedifying about being labelled a dinosaur by your own winemaker daughter.

The occasion was a discussion of a new wine range from Van Loveren Family Vineyards in Robertson, a sample of which I received some months back.

Almost Zero is a range of wines – white, rosé, red – which has been de-alcoholised. Well, almost. The alcohol by volume (ABV) of Almost Zero is 0.4% or less, and there is a good reason why there is just a smidgeon of alcohol left.

The wine I’d received was a bottle of Van Loveren Almost Zero Wonderful White, and imagine my surprise when I realised that “almost zero” did not mean 3% or 4%, but literally, almost zero.

For the life of me, I couldn’t understand why one would want to go to all the trouble of harvesting and vinifying wine in an expensive cellar process, only to extract (most of) the alcohol, before bottling it and selling it. Why bother?

“Dad, you’re a dinosaur. What about a pregnant woman who wants to drink a glass of wine, but knows she cannot because it will harm her baby? What about a mother who is breast-feeding her baby and wants to enjoy a glass of wine, but knows she cannot drink any alcohol? And what about somebody who wants to go out for the evening, have a couple of glasses over dinner, and then drive home?”

And that got me thinking. There have been other offerings in the recent past, including an alcohol-free sparkling wine, but in typical dinosaur fashion, I’ve dismissed them with a metaphorical wave of my hand as a waste of time.

Perhaps there was more to this latest trend than I’d at first thought, and, of course, there is.

Worldwide, the demand for low-alcohol or alcohol free beverages that still retain the distinctive character of the conventional beverage has spiked of late.

It’s not purely a health consideration; it’s also a dawning realisation that far too many people who have drunk far too much alcohol, get behind the wheel of a motor car, often with tragic consequences.

Alcohol-free beer has been around for ages, but with the growth in demand of late, some major players have entered this arena. Recent offerings include Heineken, Castle, and in the cider market, Savanna.

So a range of near-zero alcohol wines just makes sense.

During a recent visit to Van Loveren and the opportunity to taste the wines – Radiant Red, Ravishing Rosé, and Wonderful White – I engaged with the producer and got to understand the process, and, talking to the marketing people, the nature and extent of the potential market. And it is significant.

The wines are conventionally vinified and the alcohol is removed using a mechanical process, much like a centrifuge. The reason why the wine isn’t zero-alcohol is a matter of physics: if all the alcohol was stripped out, so too would be the flavour components of the wine, and that would be pointless. Who would pay R70-odd for a bottle of flavourless liquid?

Tasting the wines, the obvious missing dimension is the texture imparted by alcohol, that glycol-like viscosity that imparts such lovely mouthfeel.

I recall sitting tasting wine with Andy Erickson at Dancing Hares in the Napa Valley in 2012. It was harvest time, and Andy had taken time out of his busy schedule to present his wife Annie’s Favia range. The wines were typically bold, and tasting a cab, I asked Andy what was the ABV. “It’s 15%, which, for me, is the sweet spot. And if the wine is balanced then 15% isn’t a problem.” And beautifully balanced it was, although the huge ABV resulted in that characteristic heat in the back of the throat when swallowing the wine.

By comparison, you’d have to drink about 38 glasses of one of the Almost Zero wines, to ingest the equivalent amount of alcohol in a single glass of Annie Favia’s cab.

The Almost Zero range is as balanced as is achievable in a near-zero alcohol wine. They are light in texture and elegant, with complex fruit which in the context of balance, partially makes up for the lack of alcohol.

Although the lack of alcohol-imparted mouthfeel is noticeable, each of the wines is more than pleasantly drinkable.

The big plus, and well worth the asking price, is the fact that you can go out and drink a whole bottle if you choose to do so, then get into your car and drive home safely.

The near-zero ABV means the wines have 75% less kilojoules, making them truly “lite”. Perfect for that important business lunch, before hitting the gym or the road, or if you are the designated driver.

And it’s not just about not being done for drink driving; it’s about doing the right thing, in a society that still pushes the envelope when it comes to alcohol and getting behind the wheel.