Tim James: Surviving without alcohol

By , 14 January 2019



Am I observing the start of a deeply disconcerting trend in the wine industry? Or is it just the problematical time of year when normally rational people resolve on doing or not doing all sorts of things and threatening their – or at least my – ability to cope with this cruel world? No word of a lie, on Saturday I chatted separately to two industry stalwarts, one a winemaker, the other a critic and a occasional blogger, who are both swearing to allow no drop of alcohol to sully their lips for all of January. A whole month! The winemaker was succeeding thus far (11.5 days), and had enviably been shedding kilos like people shed clothes at Sandy Bay. The critic admitted to succumbing to the comforts of a bottle of burgundy when the weather turned wet and chilly the previous day – but is resolutely determined that disciplined renunciation shall rule his life for the rest of the month.

Van Loveren Wonderful White

How low can you go?

This self-imposed prohibition also retrospectively cast a rather sinister light on the bottle of  I’d recently polished off. Almost Zero? Percentage of alcohol, that is. (To be precise, 0.33% alcohol by volume.) When a PR company had sent me this sample bottle, I rather snootily emailed them to say that I wouldn’t be reviewing it, as I only talked about wine – certainly not anything as debased as de-alcoholised ex-wine.

And yet here I am, and against all my expectations even proclaiming its almost-alcohol-free virtues.

Van Loveren is a machine, of course, an amazing, hugely successful wine machine – “South Africa’s leading family-owned wine farm” they proclaim, which is no doubt true if you agree with their definition of “leading”: big, making lots of money from expertly designed, made and marketed wines catering largely to the lower and middle bits of the market – especially but certainly not exclusively via the dreadful Four Cousins range. They already have some “lite” and “skinny” Four Cousins wines – but that just implies around 9% alcohol; and their alcohol-free sparklings are simply sweet grape juice. No doubt they were pushed into this latest venture by seeing the success of the first local dealcoholised wines, from Lautus, which I haven’t tried – but have read a few unenthusiastic reports on.

Dealcoholisation is a complex technological process – we’re not talking “natural” here even by the normal standards of industrial wine production. There are two main methods: the spinning cone column and reverse osmosis. Van Loveren uses the former. It seems that, by sophisticated magic, first the volatile flavour and aroma is captured, and then the alcohol is removed. Then, hopefully, you return the other stuff…. But it seems to be difficult to make dealcoholised wines that retain the aromas and flavours of wine.

So what of Almost Zero Wonderful White? There is, in fact, a good dose of somehow winey aroma and flavour, but it’s not really fruity or flowery and it would be hard to guess that sauvignon blanc was at its origin. In fact, dare I say that I prefer its character to that of many ordinary sauvignons. Because here’s the thing: a wine lover will miss the body and vinosity given by alcohol (I often significantly miss it even in some of the lightest products of natural winemaking), but Wonderful White evokes some of the feelings I have for wine, and I can speak of its balance of flavour and freshness when drunk as chilled as it’s meant to be. It’s more interesting, complex, substantial and lingering than the glass of Rose’s Lime Juice (a favourite drink of mine) that I consciously compared it to, for example. In short, it’s a pleasing, rather characterful beverage that’s much closer to wine than I’d expected. And the packaging is designed, of course, to look as wine-like as possible – it’s the glass that’s a limey-green, by the way, not the drink, which is standard pale straw.

Startlingly, Van Loveren claims a “maturation potential” of 18 months for Wonderful White. Strange concept under the circumstances, I think, but who knows. Of course, not being wine it’s not vintage-dated and there’s no bottling date given, so less easy to test. But I can certainly affirm that the flavours and aromas held up well when I kept the bottle and its diminishing contents in the fridge for over a week, and perhaps even developed interestingly.

It is, by the way, greatly more expensive than lime cordial, at around R65 per bottle. Is the technology all that expensive, I wonder? Or do Van Loveren simply know they’ve done something very clever which should sell by the tankerful, especially with their imprimatur? I confess that, in my weaker (or stronger?) moments when I think of imposing on myself a day each week without alcohol, I might be tempted by this substitute. Surely almost zero would be enough to placate my liver?

  • Tim James is one of South Africa’s leading wine commentators, contributing to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013.


9 comment(s)

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    Lance Ledingham | 21 June 2020

    Was totally appalled at the first sip but decided to have another after a plain salticrax. The decided to have another sip. The clash in my mouth of the two( I normally have a salticrax with normal wine) gave the most vile taste and I had to spit it out. Unfortunately I did not read the label before buying. Two of some of its ingredients are grape juice and glycerol. Totally vile stuff would rather get low calorie white. How anybody could enjoy this is beyond me! Never again!

    Isabelle | 12 September 2019

    I found a bottle at Checkers.
    Been on a diet, and i have been good, no alcohol for the last 3 weeks. It’s been difficult I must admit. I have a function on Saturday, so I thought this would be a great idea. I am very sceptic though. I love my wine, in fact, I am on a diet to get down to a suitable weight, so that I can drink wine guilt free, all summer long. Hoping my bottle does not end up tasting like vinegar! Thanks for the article.

    Ant | 16 April 2019

    Woolworths also have a de-alcoholised range, a white and a red, called Lautus. This is displayed in the wine section, although this itself is worthy of a debate!

    Tim James | 15 April 2019

    Hanlie – I did mention in my article that “it’s not really fruity or flowery and it would be hard to guess that sauvignon blanc was at its origin”, so you shouldn’t have been disappointed there. And like Stewart, I didn’t find it sweet. I hope Yvette’s other bottles proved better than her first. But it is certainly notable how controversial this un-wine certainly is.

    Stewart Prentice | 15 April 2019

    I really like it. It retains a wine like character, although I can’t stop thinking of Rose’s lime juice when I’m drinking it. None of the bottles I’ve bought have been either sweet or off. Who would have thought so much bottle variation possible in a cool drink like this?

    Hanlie van Dyk | 14 April 2019

    I bought 12 bottles for a school function where no alcohol sales were allowed. I am keen on lower alcohol wines, but I was most disappointed! If you are expecting a crisp, even fruity sauvignon, steer clear! The beverage is way too sweet – even after mixing it 50/50 with sparkling water, the sweet taste remained. We offered the ‘wine’ for tasting, but sales were non-existing.

    Yvette | 7 February 2019

    I purchased a case from Makro. I was really excited to try it but the bottle I opened tasted like vinegar, undrinkable. I hope that it is just this one bottle that is off and that the other bottles will be fine. Hopefully, this vinegar note is not what the wine is supposed to taste of!

    Tim James | 14 January 2019

    Jane – they say “supermarkets”. I’d guess in the wine section (!?). If you do try a bottle, please make a comment on how you find it – if you agree with me or not.

    Jane | 14 January 2019

    Thanks Tim for the article. I also need a beverage for those wine-free days (sigh), so has Van Loveren indicated where these will be retailing? Thanks!

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