As a professional in the wine industry and a sommelier by trade, I often find myself not only recommending things, but also trying to convince people that certain assumptions are unfounded. Riesling can be very dry, and so can Sherry. It’s OK to drink rosé in the winter and sparkling on a Tuesday. Here’s my latest. Ready for this? Good alcohol-free wine exists.
I know; that’s certainly a sentence I never imagined myself writing.
Sure, we’ve been witness to an evolution in the non-alcoholic beer market over the last couple years. Canned product from breweries like Calgary’s Partake and Central City in Metro Vancouver have been playing around with good doses of hops and malt for everything from stouts to I.P.A.-styles; those infusions of flavour have absolved us of the insipid cereal water of Molson Exel and the like that dominated the shelves of yesteryear.
In fact, that category has exploded lately, thanks in part to people like Navin Schaduangrat, who started Kitsilano-based AFBev.ca, an online retail portal with numerous international non-alcoholic craft beer offerings (plus smatterings of alcohol-free wine and spirits).
He began building his business in 2018 while looking for these sorts of options while he was consulting with tech companies, assisting with corporate growth.
When I recently reached him by phone, Schaduangrat explained how he was a big fan of craft beer, but regular consumption while socializing with friends increasingly took its toll on his general wellness, via hangovers, general exhaustion and the like. He’d read a few reports on how German Winter Olympic Athletes used alcohol-free wheat beer both while socializing and for recovery.
“It was then that I realized maybe socializing and drinking alcohol don’t necessarily have to be synonymous,” he shared.
Even that short time back, there still weren’t that many options in the category, especially compared to the dizzying array of regular craft beer available Vancouver-wide.
After considering a few options like self-brewing (he doesn’t know how to brew), or approaching a local brewery to partner on production (likely expensive and where to even start), he landed on sleuthing the globe on his own to import some of the best international styles available.
“I mean, if my plan didn’t work out, at least I knew I’d have a nice selection for myself.”
Thanks to Schaduangrat’s venture, it’s now quite easy for us to access everything from Quebec’s Bière Sans Alcool (the Raspberry Sour is a must) to the rich and complex outings from the U.K.’s Big Drop Brewing Co., along with ultra-niche options like Tempest Brewing’s Sour Pale from Scotland, and Norway’s Nøgne Ø Himla Humla IPA.
Around this time Vancouverites also started seeing some decent de-alcoholized spirits. U.K.-based Seedlip non-alcoholic spirits had taken the world by storm a with tipples like ‘The Garden,’ a charismatic blend of peas & herbs including rosemary, thyme & spearmint. A little closer to home, Vancouver Island’s Lumette! has been making a lot of noise with their 0% ‘Lumrum,’ a golden rum-type spirit, and their ‘London Dry,’ with textbook gin botanicals like juniper, grapefruit, lemon and start anise.
On the hunt for more of these spirits, and particularly keen on new, quality alcohol-free wine discoveries were Kathryn Hepher and her daughters Fiona and Sarah, who cofounded Sansorium, another local online platform in the category that has recently expanded to include pop-up events.
In a phone chat with Fiona, I discovered they had a similar trajectory as AFBev.ca, Sansorium’s genesis originating from their own sober and sober-curious journeys, and the lack of decent product available.
“We all quickly tired of having to go four different stores just to get a handful of decent options, particularly when we researched further and learned about so much diversity and quality available elsewhere,” she told me.
Their ever-growing portfolio is quite impressive, particularly on the alcohol-free wine front, and in that growth, I’m promised excellent (Red!) fare about to hit our shores from Spain, Australia, and beyond.
“We’re quite selective on what we bring in,” she says. “Just because something has great design and good quality level of production methods, that’s not enough for us. It’s really about the taste being at a high level, too.”
While Sansorium are doing some of their own importing, they’re also sourcing bottlings (and cannings) high by quality wine producers from Nova Scotia’s Benjamin Bridge to Germany’s Weingut Leitz. Those two brands (plus other alcohol-free wine, beer, and spirit selections) come to us from Alberta-based soft crush imports, a sister company to Crush Imports, a traditional wine-importing agency owned by Mark Kuspira, a trained sommelier, importer, and distributor. Noting recent trends in wellness, inclusive hospitality, and an increase in those wanting to moderate their alcohol consumption, Kuspira has built this business with the eye (and nose, and palate) of his sommelier background, steadfast on natural ingredients, authentic farming and fermenting practices, plus regional expression. When you have those deeply immersed in the traditional trade willing to hang their hat on alcohol-free wine, you know the times, they are a-changin’.
“We select our partners and products based on quality and value. As with our traditional wines, our team, which includes trained sommeliers, reviews the premium no/low alcohol wines we distribute in Canada for taste, texture, colour, and aroma.”
I started this piece off by promising you that good alcohol-free wine exists.
1. Oddbird Spumante Non-Alcoholic Sparkling
Comes from a company based in Sweden, but their wines hail from proper terroirs. This Spumante is a take on Prosecco, and just like the Proseccos we know and love, it’s indeed made from the Glera grape grown in the Veneto region of Italy.
Fizzy? Check. Peaches? Check. Citrusy? Check? Tasty? Hells yeah.
2. Oddbird Rosé Non-Alcoholic Sparkling
This is a blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grown in the Languedoc-Roussillon of France. While I enjoy this one, I feel it lends itself more towards the juice part of the spectrum, but oh my, that juice is damn tasty. Think Rainier cherries, Gala apples, and a good squeeze of lime.
3. Benjamin Bridge Piquette Zero
Both wine enthusiasts and trend-spotters will have noticed the rush of Piquettes elbowing their way into the beverage category. Historians will note that Piquette was a generations-back wine style that European peasants, often vineyard workers, would make by fermenting leftover grape must, then adding water (and perhaps honey, sugar, or other ingredients) to make an inexpensive, low-alcohol wine-esque drink. There’s a global revival going on that is viewed by cynics as a winery cash-grab, and by proponents as a zero-waste, casual, fun, easygoing drink. I’m of the latter camp. Winemaker Jean-Benoit Deslauriers is known well for his aromatic whites and traditional method sparkling wines; his keen sense has translated well to this style, all sparkly and lemon pith-y with stone fruit, and the literal addition of hops bringing some on-point texture and complexity.
4. Weingut Leitz Eins-Zwei-Zero Riesling
This is the best alcohol-free wine I’ve had to date (also available in sparkling format, both in bottle and can). This wine was created when a restaurateur client needed an excellent non-alcohol option for a tasting menu. It covers everything I want out of (a dry, by the way) Riesling, from coriander and lemon peel to beeswax-y petrol notes, to vibrant acidity and a good mineral component. So much going on here.
All cards on the table, I’m still hunting for a red I’m happy to endorse, and look forward to holding the Sansorium ladies to their promise of impressive coming attractions.
For all these, and so much more, visit AFBev.ca and Sansorium.com. For those looking to poke around some shelves, The Drive Canteen on Commercial has the best retail selection in town.