THE MOTHER OF INNOVATION by Graham Howe


LEADING THE WAY WITH INNOVATIVE NEW PRODUCTS, SEVERAL CAPE WINERIES HAVE EMBRACED THEIR FORAY INTO THE NON-ALCOHOLIC MARKET

ON A TOUR OF CHICAGO IN 2014, we visited the Green Mill and I learned about Al Capone and the origins of bootlegging. Founded in 1907, the mobster’s local speakeasy is renowned for its historic underground tunnels for the delivery of whisky and beer barrels – and providing a quick escape route during a police raid. A bronze plaque marks the declaration of Prohibition more than a century ago in 1920 and pays tribute to Brown-Forman as the only American pre-Prohibition liquor company to survive decades later.

The federal ban on the making, import, transport and sale of alcohol lasted for 12 long, dry years – and its puritanical effects cast a long shadow. Prohibition led to the rise of organised crime, a boom in illegal moonshine, backyard beer brewing and bathtub gin, massive losses in taxes, police corruption, anti-alcohol sentiment and states with dry counties to this day. Even bourbon counties.

History repeats itself. Before Corona who’d have guessed we’d end up living through three waves of alcohol bans in less than 12 months? Or that South Africa would be the only country to go dry outside of the Middle East? I’d never even heard the word de-alcoholised until recently. But necessity is the mother of invention – and innovation...

I was surprised to discover that at least a dozen South African wineries now make de-alcoholised still and sparkling wines – while local craft distilleries make alcohol-free fynbos gins and beer. A niche market is booming under the ban – and capturing the zeitgeist of our puritanical age with crafty non-alcoholic brands such as Abstinence, Almost Zero, Hero, Sober Dry and Vergin. There are even new online stores run by non-alcoholic drinks specialists such as Drink Nil which sell an amazing range of alcohol-free craft beer, cider, wine, gin and mocktails made by South African cellars and distilleries.

Leading the way with innovative new products, a dozen Cape wineries have launched non-alcoholic wines into a market where 69% of people don’t drink alcohol. I filled up a case with 12 de-alcoholised rosé, white and red varietal and blended wines from Bonnievale, Cognato, Darling Cellars (vegan-friendly too), De Krans, Holder Vineyard & Wines Lautus, Leopard’s Leap Natura, Norah’s Valley, Piekenierskloof Six Hats, Robertson Winery Sparkling Wine, Uncanny, Van Loveren Almost Zero and Willow Creek. Phew! Most were under screw cap, non-vintage, varietal and labelled de-alcoholised.

For wine to be classified as alcohol-free in South Africa it must be under 0.5% alcohol by volume (ABV). There are subtle distinctions between alcohol-free, non-alcoholic and de-alcoholised wines, depending on how the wines are made – even though the terms are often used interchangeably. Alcohol-free (0.0% ABV) wines made without fermenting the grapes tend to have less body, tannin and flavour than their alcoholic counterparts – and are really more like a grape juice beverage. De-alcoholised wines (less than 0.05% ABV) on the other hand undergo full fermentation through fascinating new technological processes such as reverse osmosis, cone-spinning or vacuum distillation which remove the alcohol but retain those delicate wine aromas and flavours.

Once the wines were chilled, I was ready for my brave new experiment tasting de-alcoholised wine. You should compare like with like, not oranges with apples, so it would be unfair to throw into the flight a full-strength fine wine. But cracking open and pouring a chilled wine, with a winey label like the Bushvine on Darling Cellars, already replicates the sensory experience of enjoying wine – and sends a feel-good memory recall to your brain.

To cut to the chase, I really enjoyed the de-alcoholised rosé wines with their delicate tones and crisp dry bubble – as well as the cool-climate wines such as Sauvignon Blanc which express a full aroma, body and flavour. But I didn’t enjoy the thin reds, mostly Pinotage and Shiraz, with texture and tannin that vanished mid-palate. You can’t win ’em all.

WineLand Magazine, April 2021

See Drink Nil's range of de-alcoholised wines and bubblies here

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*CAPE TOWN-BASED GRAHAM HOWE HAS WRITTEN ABOUT FOOD AND WINE FOR A WIDE RANGE OF PRINT MEDIA OVER THE PAST 30 YEARS. HE ALSO HAS THE LONGEST-RUNNING ONLINE COLUMN IN SOUTH AFRICA – IT HAS APPEARED ON WINE.CO.ZA SINCE THE LATE 1990S. HE HAS A PASSION FOR THE GOOD LIFE AND HAS TRAVELLED TO OVER 70 COUNTRIES ON ASSIGNMENTS.


1 comment


  • anne rogers

    Very interesting, informative article.


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