The Observer

Non-Alcoholic Wines: New Culture or Sour Grapes?

Sales of no- and low-alcohol wine soar in France amid deep-seated cultural change. But your correspondent keeps his true feelings bottled up.
© Mathilde Aubier/France-Amérique

It’s an understatement to say that wine is deeply ingrained in French culture. For centuries, its virtues have been lauded by everyone from kings and politicians to writers and humorists. Even the great medical pioneer Louis Pasteur decreed that a meal without wine was like a day without sunshine, a maxim joyfully displayed in bars and restaurants across the land. As one observant humorist remarked, this country is so proud of its great vintages that it even names towns and villages after them.

And yet the unthinkable has happened: Wine has fallen from grace in France. According to the national statistics bureau, INSEE, annual consumption has dropped from 33.8 gallons per person in 1960 to an average of 9.5 gallons today. (To be fair, the downtrend is not confined to France. The latest figures from the European Commission show similar movements across the continent, with even bigger falls in Germany and Portugal. At the same time, overall wine production has risen by 4%.) The reasons for the falloff are many and varied, from a cost-of-living squeeze to a general trend towards health and wellness. Whatever the causes, though, the shift is generational. Indeed, the head of one of France’s main wine trade bodies, CNIV, admits that the industry has lost the battle to pass the vinous tradition on to the next generations and that the consequences will be economic and cultural.

Economically, the impact of dwindling demand and consumption is obvious. Several winemaking regions, notably Bordeaux, are suffering heavily, and industry organizations are warning of widespread bankruptcies and unemployment. The situation is such that the French government has this year set aside 216 million dollars to dispose of a wine surplus and, it hopes, to shore up prices. From an observer’s perspective, however, it is the cultural aspect that compels attention, for this is not a fad or fleeting trend but a long-term behavioral shift. True, the falloff began more than two decades ago, gathering momentum as younger consumers turned their back on the habits of their parents and grandparents. Back in 2011, French marketing researchers were already pointing to what they called a “progressive erosion of wine’s identity” and, crucially, of its “sacred and imaginary representations.” That hallowed status – “precious seed scattered by the eternal Sower,” per Baudelaire – has largely disappeared as wine is seen increasingly as just another consumer product, and a potentially harmful one at that. But while traditional consumption continues to plunge, sales of NoLo (no- and low-alcohol) wines are booming. Might this be the ultimate French Paradox?

True, similar movements have been observed in other countries, notably the U.S. and the U.K., but it’s France that has drawn so much attention because of its wine-growing history and tradition. (France is classified sociologically as a “wet” culture, where alcohol is part of daily life and wine the beverage of choice, while America is a “dry” culture, where alcohol consumption is less frequent, availability more tightly restricted, and temperance movements more prevalent.) The new climate is definitely a result of that generational shift. Millennials and Gen Zers are noticeably more health-conscious and wary of excessive drinking than their forebears. Arguably, they are also broader-minded. Whereas their parents and grandparents usually had a binary approach – you either drink alcohol or you don’t – these younger cohorts take a different view. They do not shun liquor altogether but consume in moderation, often switching from an alcoholic beverage to a NoLo drink on the same occasion.

© Mathilde Aubier/France-Amérique

In the Anglosphere, this credo has spawned a mindset, a lifestyle – even a vocabulary. Youngsters belonging to “Generation Sober” engage in “mindful drinking” – thinking before boozing – and espouse “sober curiosity,” questioning the personal and societal reasons for consuming alcohol. All these habits and the accompanying terminology have been imported into French, leading some critics – especially in the wine industry, for whom NoLo is a no-go – to denounce a foreign plot against their country’s ancestral way of life, not to mention its language. (In a high-profile move, the best-selling wine magazine La Revue du vin de France chose no lesser a personage than President Emmanuel Macron as its 2022 Personality of the Year in order to highlight his regular wine consumption.) And yet, by all reports, France is now one of the fastest-growing markets in alcohol-free drinks, with NoLo wine accounting for an increasingly large proportion of the overall offering. While some of these vintages are developed from scratch by young entrepreneurs, others are the brainchild of respected producers in prestigious regions seeking to attract what, for them, is a whole new customer base.

Broadly, these new-style drinks come in two categories: non-alcoholic wines, made in the same way as regular wines and then filtered or heated to remove the alcohol, and wine substitutes, which use ingredients such as fruit juices to approximate a wine-like taste. “It’s important to remember that these beverages don’t claim to be ‘wine’ in the conventional sense of the term,” says Augustin Laborde, founder of Le Paon Qui Boit (“The Drinking Peacock”), the first cave sans alcool in Paris. “NoLo wines aren’t a substitute for alcohol; they broaden the options for abstainers and create new experiences for wine drinkers.” When wine is an essential part of the national culture, non-drinkers often feel left out. “The conventional wisdom used to be that if you didn’t drink wine, you couldn’t fully enjoy a meal or an evening out: You were excluded,” says Laborde. “The same applies, for example, to observant Muslims, pregnant women, athletes, and people with health problems or allergies. The whole point of the NoLo movement is inclusiveness. And pleasure, of course.”

While Laborde’s is the first brick-and-mortar store in France, a number of web-based outlets have been operating for longer. There are even entire vineyards producing nothing but non-alcoholic wine. All have the same argument – to find creative, enjoyable solutions for people who can’t or don’t want to drink alcohol but who still want a full social life. Or, in the words of one marketer, to provide abstainers with “an elevated drinking experience” – a high without getting high, as it were. In every case, the notion of inclusion comes to the fore: bars promoting NoLo offerings, fine-dining restaurants offering “non-wine” lists and food pairings (think green apple juice with grilled mackerel), supermarkets with extensive NoLo sections – there’s something for everyone. The opportunities, like the financial benefits, are boundless. The percentage of abstainers and non-drinkers is shooting upwards – nearly 20% of the French population, according to data from IWSR Drinks Market Analysis – and many of the new consumers are from higher-income groups.

So, with regular wine consumption on a seemingly secular downtrend, health-conscious Millennials drinking less or no alcohol, and young consumers open to new ideas and tastes, NoLo is surely the future? Well, yes and no. Despite the name, non-alcoholic wine is different. As Augustin Laborde explains: “It’s a new drink, a special experience. You need to broaden your expectations.” However, as my local wine merchant retorted, “If you want something different, why drink imitation wine? It’s like a vegetarian who eats fake steak.”

Purely in the interest of research, I unscrewed (corks are so passé) a bottle of non-alcoholic red from the Languedoc region in southwestern France. My verdict? The nose was surprisingly lively, with notes of jammy black fruit. The taste was, well, jammy black fruit. Lots of it. In all, the wine lacked the complexity that comes from the soil, the grapes, the seasons, the passage of time, and – yes – the alcohol. But there again, the comparison – as Laborde points out – is irrelevant because we are not comparing like with like. In the end, it’s enjoyment that counts. As I swirled the NoLo wine around in my mouth, a line from the 19th century writer Alfred de Musset came to mind: Qu’importe le flacon, pourvu qu’on ait l’ivresse (The bottle isn’t important as long as you get drunk). But then again, Musset was an alcoholic…

Article published in the October 2023 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.