When Maria Jung set out to make customary sales calls for her family’s wine estate, she did not expect to be met with refusals. But she returned home to report a disappointing drop in purchases among regular customers. They were, they had told her, avoiding alcohol for health reasons. Jung considered the problem. She proposed that the family try an experiment. Why not dealcoholize their wines in the distillery they also operated? Within a few years, the estate was making the world’s first non-alcoholic wines under a patented process.
This is not, however, the story of an innovative winery responding to modern wellness culture. The year was 1900, and the place was Rüdesheim am Rhein, Germany.
That very early adoption is now paying off. Today, some 100 German wineries, from co-ops to international flagships, offer non-alcoholic wines of increasingly impressive quality. One is Weingut Leitz, the U.S. market leader in this category, which sends its wines to be dealcoholized just a few kilometers down the road—to Maria Jung’s great-grandson.
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While many producers and industry experts believe these are still early days in the development of quality dealcoholized wines, dedicated researchers at Geisenheim, Germany’s top wine university, have been working on alcohol reduction in wine for at least 40 years. Some German producers have spent years selecting varieties and optimizing processes to deliver a premium product. A recent step up in quality stems from producers paying closer attention to the condition of their base wines and from experiential and technological breakthroughs that are noticeable in the latest vintages. Germany is also gaining considerable sophistication in the fast-evolving field of flavor capture and add-back.
Although the German non-alcoholic wine landscape was long dominated by mass-market products, today Germany’s top producers—among them Georg Breuer, Selbach-Oster, Weingut Dr. Loosen, Weingut Bibo Runge, and Weingut Leitz—are lending their names to quality dealcoholized wines. The push towards premiumization is now palpable in export markets as well.
A Long History of Dealcoholization
“In Germany, the topic of dealcoholized wine is not brand new,” notes Matthias Schmitt, Ph.D, a researcher at Geisenheim. However, Bernhard Jung, now managing director of Carl Jung, one of Germany’s leading wine dealcoholizers, explains that when his great-grandmother Maria prompted the family to start experimenting with dealcoholization around the turn of the last century, it wasn’t an immediate success.
Removing alcohol from wine requires very high temperatures, which strip out aromas and flavors. “My grandfather, Dr. Carl Jung, read about expeditions to the Himalayas,” explains Jung. “Water boils at 70 degrees Celsius at those elevations, not at 100 degrees Celsius, as it does closer to sea level. That gave him the idea to try distillation under vacuum, to lower the boiling point.” This would allow for the extraction of ethanol with less loss of volatile aromatic compounds. Dr. Jung wasn’t an engineer, so he commissioned the construction of a vacuum pump that could be attached to his distiller. This proved to be the critical step. He patented the process, known today as the vacuum distillation method, in Germany in 1907, with the U.S. patent following a year later.
The German market for non-alcoholic wines developed slowly at first, says Jung. The first breakthrough came in the 1920s, with exports to the U.S. during Prohibition. There was further interest from countries where alcohol was either expensive or there was a steep cost to driving while intoxicated. About 20 years ago, the Carl Jung company decided there was enough demand to specialize solely in dealcoholization, both for its own label and as a contract dealcoholizer. That specialization has helped it meet the boom in non-alcoholic beverages of the past five or six years, especially during the pandemic, when health concerns spiked.
There are just a few major German contract wine dealcoholizers—Weinkellerei Trautwein and Entalkoholisierungszentrum Baden-Württemberg are the others. In Germany, wineries rarely do the work in-house. “This is really a specialized field,” explains Jung. The technology is a major investment and knowhow is very specific. Though Germany does not keep official statistics on dealcoholized wine production or sales, Jung alone now turns out more than 10 million bottles of non-alcoholic wine per year.
“The easiest answer to why Germany leads the non-alcoholic wine category is so stereotyped that I hesitate to name it,” says Frank Schulz, the communications director at the German Wine Institute. But he does: “Technology. German entrepreneurs have always been good at that.”
But there are other key factors, too. The first is beer. In the 1980s and ’90s, when German brewers introduced non-alcoholic options, they were poorly received. But when brewers started to take the category seriously and develop higher quality products, consumers began to embrace them. Now, dealcoholized beer represents more than 10 percent of the German beer market and is steadily growing. “That may be a kind of proof-of-concept that can benefit the wine industry,” suggests Dr. Schmitt.
Equally important to the success of German nonalcoholic wines are the grape varieties and wine styles that are at home in Germany. Riesling, Müller-Thurgau, Gewürztraminer, Sauvignon Blanc, Muscat varieties, and some hybrids all have high concentrations of complex aromatics that can survive the aroma-stripping process of dealcoholization. These grapes allow for an impressive retention of typicity across Germany’s varietally labeled non-alcoholic wines.
Some signature German wine styles are also naturally lower in alcohol and higher in residual sugars. “Our Dr. L wine, which we produce in a typical Mosel fruity style—with around 40 grams residual sweetness, eight grams of acidity, and only 8.5% alcohol—is a perfect wine to dealcoholize,” explains Thomas Loosen, who heads up production at Dr. Loosen in the Mosel. “Its natural low alcohol means the wine needs to stay in the process a much shorter time, which also keeps more flavors in the non-alcoholic wine.”
Loosen touches on another vexing issue for non-alcoholic wines: texture. Ethanol’s viscosity is best substituted through sugar, light carbonation, or a combination of both. In Germany, 80 percent of dealcoholized wine is carbonated, according to Schmitt. “It’s obvious why,” he says. “When you taste those products, CO2 really helps to buffer what we experience when the alcohol is gone, so we get a bit fuller mouthfeel and the product is closer to the original.” Playing with sugar levels also helps producers build viscosity and buffer perceived acidity—which is already inherently high in Germany’s signature aromatic varieties and further concentrated by the loss of volume when the ethanol fraction is removed.
Breakthroughs in Non-Alcoholic Production Processes
Three main dealcoholization technologies exist worldwide: spinning cone, reverse osmosis membrane filtration, and Jung’s vacuum distillation method. The last of those is the industry standard in Germany. Yet even this time-tested process fundamentally alters sensory perceptions of what makes a wine taste and feel like wine. “By taking out ethanol—the most important volatile component in wine—we become aware that it has a very, very complex influence on wine sensory characteristics,” explains Schmitt.
With most non-alcoholic wines, what consumers miss, even before they take their first sip, are accustomed primary and secondary aromas. Claudia Geyer, a food chemist, has been working on this problem for more than a decade. As the founder and now director of new product development at FlavoLogic outside Munich, she and her team recently made notable breakthroughs in aroma and flavor recovery for dealcoholized wines, the first of which are just coming to market.
Her discovery rests on the realization that a different physical mechanism was needed to separate aromas from alcohol to allow for effective flavor capture and add-back. She and her team have patented a proprietary filtering medium (a resin granulate) through which both alcohol and aromas are pushed to capture the volatile aroma compounds evaporated out of the wine, then returned to the non-alcoholic wine with convincing fidelity.
“It’s still a bit of trial and error,” Geyer concedes, which is one reason her company offers small-batch lab trials. “It’s really good to be able to check this before you go to industrial scale.” This feature also opens a new point of entry to quality-minded small and mid-sized German producers, who may not otherwise be able to afford the risks of sending off 10,000 liters for dealcoholization with no idea what they’d get back.
From Wine Byproduct to Bestseller
Geyer and others point out that until recently, the mentality among most German non-alcoholic wine producers was to turn an unsellable wine into a dealcoholized one. “Now, it’s about selecting the right raw materials and bringing really good wines for dealcoholization,” she says.
Christian Nett offers a case study for this new mindset. He is the winemaker at Bergdolt Reif & Nett, a mid-sized family winery in the Pfalz. Five years ago, he started exploring non-alcoholic wines, trying to determine if it would be possible to make examples that “let us get into the story of origins and sites, barrel aging, etc.” He started tasting what was on the market. Nothing impressed him.
A few years later, he learned about Claudia Geyer’s work and sent samples to her lab. When the wines came back, he pulled his team together to taste. “With the first sniff, we all looked at each other,” says Nett. “We’d never encountered non-alcoholic wines like them.” Convinced, they started to ask questions and experiment. Blend before dealcoholization or after? Play with süssreserve—the addition of unfermented grape juice to sweeten a wine after fermentation to temper acidity?
“We wanted to be sure we offered our customers a choice. You can’t just say, ‘This is my non-alcoholic wine: take it or leave it.'” – Christian Nett, Bergdolt Reif & Nett
Among the answers he’s reached are that blending works best before alcohol is removed. “The wine is already blended and stable in tank, so I have an idea of what will happen when it’s dealcoholized,” says Nett. “I don’t like blending the dealcoholized wine simply because the wine is microbiologically very susceptible once it’s been dealcoholized, and if I then have to pump it around five more times or let it sit and then try something else, that’s just too risky for me. I’d rather do that first, with a stable wine.”
Nett also avoids the addition of süssreserve. “It quickly moves the wine in a more juice-like, must-like, and less wine-like direction,” he says. Instead he prefers to amplify body by adding rectified, concentrated grape must because it’s flavor neutral. Nett’s biggest question now is “What sort of wine do I need to start with if I have a certain idea of what the dealcoholized version should be?”
Today, Bergdolt-Reif & Nett produces seven non-alcoholic wines. “We wanted to be sure we offered our customers a choice. You can’t just say, ‘This is my non-alcoholic wine: take it or leave it.’” Last year, 18,000 bottles of their total 450,000-bottle production were alcohol-free. “This year we’ll easily double that,” says Nett. “What we need now is enough wines of the right quality for our non-alcoholic line.”
The U.S. Market for German Non-Alcoholic Wines
The U.S. market for German non-alcoholic wines was cracked wide open in 2018 by Rheingau producer Weingut Leitz and importer Schatzi Wines. “California was the first market to really take off,” explains Schatzi founder Kevin Pike. “Important restaurants like Lazy Bear and The French Laundry were early supporters. Retail was also strong.” Five years later, Leitz has shipped nine full 40-foot containers of non-alcoholic wines to the U.S. in the first six months of 2023 alone, says Pike. “The containers are nearly all presold before they arrive.”
Recognizing the opportunity, more producers have moved in. Among them is Dr. Loosen, with its Dr. Lo still and sparkling non-alcoholic wines. Kirk Wille, the president of Loosen Bros USA, which imports them, says demand for German non-alcoholic wines is “really starting to happen in the U.S.” Although it’s still a small piece of the business, he has some markets, like Nebraska, ordering it by the pallet.
Another German non-alcoholic wine that’s made a splash in the U.S. is Fritz-Müller Akoholfrei, imported by the German Wine Collection (GWC). At around $20 retail, the off-dry sparkler hits a comfortable price point—another reason German non-alcoholic wines are gaining popularity here, says GWC president Jenna Fields. “It doesn’t look cheap, but it doesn’t look too expensive to try something new.” She sees demand for this product equally split between off- and on-premise and notes a rising use of the beverage as a base for non-alcoholic cocktails, too.
Rising demand for no- and low-alcohol beer and wine is spurring innovation in production methods
Rising demand for no- and low-alcohol beer and wine is spurring innovation in production methods
Gabe Clary, who heads up the German portfolio at Skurnik Wines, notes that “since Leitz came onto the non-alcoholic scene in a huge way, everybody’s now aware of the category.” Clary’s strategy is to work with his current stable of producers to source non-alcoholic options. He now brings in Selbach-Oster’s Funkelwürtz Zero, Fio’s Fabelhaft Alkohol Free, and Georg Breuer’s GB Sens.
He sees Germany and non-alcoholic wines as a smart stylistic fit. “We are already attuned to German wines with a little bit of residual sugar. So, generally speaking, the addition of sugar as a replacement for the kind of viscosity that you get with alcohol to make the wines more closely resemble their alcoholic counterparts texturally makes sense.” As Clary builds this category, he’s focusing his search on palatable dry non-alcoholic options.
The Next Frontiers for Non-Alcoholic Wine
Researchers and producers agree: It’s early days. Markus Bonsels of Weingut Bibo Runge, also in the Rheingau, whose non-alcoholic wines quickly became an unexpected staple of his portfolio, notes that while testing which of Germany’s dealcoholizers he wanted to work with, he learned that “we’re still in the very early stages of really understanding what outstanding alcohol-free wine is. When I asked questions like, ‘What would a baseline for an alcohol-free wine look like? What would it taste like?’ I got different answers. The only commonality was that acidity needs to be lower. On other questions—’Should it be aged? Should it be young? Should it be spicy? Should it be fresh, mineral?’—there was no real answer.”
Developing an understanding of these parameters is the next step. The impetus to move forward with research and development is clear. “Someone in the industry once pointed out to me that we need to be quick and work together all over the globe in this field,” says Schmitt. “If you are the only company or country in the world producing good dealcoholized wines and all the others are doing poor stuff, everyone’s reputation suffers. If we manage to raise the quality of dealcoholized products globally, we all win.”
5 Non-Alcoholic German Wines to Track Down
Dr. Lo ‘With Bubbles’ Alcohol-Removed Riesling NV, Mosel
With Bubbles opens with an appealing nose of citrus and stone fruit. On the palate, there’s a cheerful effervescence, bright, clear fruit, and decent acidity. (Imported by Loosen Bros. USA)
Dr. Lo Alcohol-Removed Riesling NV, Mosel
The still version of alcohol-free Riesling from Dr. Lo, this wine has a refreshing, acidic edge that keeps an abundance of ripe, juicy, tropical fruits in balance. (Imported by Loosen Bros. USA)
Selbach ‘Funkelwürtz Zero’ NV, Mosel
A blend of 80 percent Muskat and 20 percent Rivaner, this carbonated wine has a telltale Muskat-like nose: white grape, pineapple, and lemon balm. It’s off-dry (20 grams of residual sugar per liter) with fine, delicate carbonation, bright acidity, and a well-balanced body and viscosity. (Imported by Skurnik Wines & Spirits)
Fritz-Müller Alkoholfrei Müller-Thurgau NV, Rheinhessen
With an inviting, fresh, vinous nose that smells of lime blossom, peach, and lemon verbena, this carbonated wine has a soft, fizzy mousse and pleasing body. Bright acidity easily balances the 49 grams of residual sugar per liter for a distinctly German, lightly off-dry style. (Imported by German Wine Collection)
Bergdolt Reif & Nett ‘Breakaway’ Gewürztraminer entalkoholisiert NV, Pfalz
This still wine has a restrained nose by Gewürztraminer standards, but it carries faithful varietal typicity of lychee, rose, and very ripe apricot. It’s juicy at 59 grams of residual sugar per liter, but the cleansing acidity balances the sweetness. It has a very pleasing mouthfeel and convincing viscosity. (Not yet imported)
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Valerie Kathawala is a New York-based journalist specializing in the wines of Austria, Germany, South Tyrol, and Switzerland. She is also the co-founder and co-editor of TRINK Magazine. She holds a WSET 3 certification.