Wine for the sober drivers

MICHELLE ROBINSON
Last updated 15:01 05/08/2012

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Pregnant women are raising their glasses to alcohol-free wine.

The growing trend is making waves throughout the world, including Muslim nations and now also Australia and New Zealand.

It's also being touted as a positive way to combat New Zealand's binge drinking culture. And pregnant women, designated drivers, athletes, and even children are among fans.

International Aotearoa owner Raylene O'Connor began importing alcohol-free wines after tiring of juice and fizzy drink at social occasions.

"I live in North Canterbury and there's no taxis here. I was always the sober driver," she said.

"I didn't feel like fizzy or orange one night so I had a cup of tea. People looked at me like I was queer."

The alcohol-free wine has found fans among young women, O'Connor said.

"There's a lot of social pressure to drink. So if people don't know you're not drinking wine, you feel more a part of the crowd."

O'Connor has been importing zero alcohol wines from Sutter Home Winery in California since 2003.

The drink goes a step further than grape juice. The wine is made in the usual fermentation process and then fractionated to remove alcohol, usually through a process known as the spinning cone.

The Sutter Home wines include chardonnay, merlot, moscato and brut for $11.50 a bottle.

"It's a bit sweeter because it's Californian and there's no alcohol to give it a bite," O'Connor said.

Doug Sellman, of Otago University's national addiction centre, is a long-time critic of New Zealand's binge-drinking culture, and says zero alcohol wine and beer will help people avoid the social pressure around drinking.

"Drinking no, or low-alcohol wine could be a great disguise for them at social events."

The Law Commission has advocated for better management of alcohol to reduce social harms. Moves overseas to reduce the amount of alcohol content in drinks have proved successful, Sellman said.

An option being considered by the commission is to lower excise tax on drinks with less than 2.5 per cent alcohol, and increase it for drinks with higher alcohol content.

New Zealand already has a zero alcohol tolerance for under 20-year-old drivers.

Wine retailer Glengarry also imports Edenvale wines with less than 0.5 per cent alcohol from Australia.

Interest is picking up, the more people hear about it, said Matthew McGowan, manager of the Grey Lynn, Auckland, store.

The Edenvale stocks non-alcoholic chardonnay, shiraz, sparkling cuvee and rose.

For pregnant and breastfeeding mothers, there's the appeal of having a wine without the worry of affecting their children's health.

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"Not drinking during pregnancy is fine," West Auckland mother Rachel said.

"Not drinking while breastfeeding is so much worse, especially once you start getting a full night's sleep and start feeling like a normal person again. A decent non-alcoholic wine sounds great."

But it might be a while before New Zealand starts producing the stuff.

Some wineries were experimenting with lower alcohol content, but were yet to try eliminating alcohol completely, New Zealand Wine chief executive officer Philip Gregan said.

"The alcohol content of wine has risen to some extent over the last 15 years. With higher-quality wines, it's a consequence that there's higher alcohol content.

"But if someone wants a glass of wine with lunch the last thing they want is a 14 per cent alcohol wine, they'd rather a 10 per cent."

Producers are trying to recreate quality wine with full-ripened grapes and less alcohol. The move is to give consumers more options, rather than cater for potential law changes, Gregan said.

"But by definition of wine, it has alcohol in it. If you don't make it wine first, then it's grape juice."

TASTE TEST

It looks like wine and even costs the same as a standard bottle of wine. But as for taste, it gained mixed reactions. The Sunday Star- Times conducted a blind test of Edenvale shiraz with its alcoholic equivalent:

- "It's like they took Ribena and sucked out the sugar. Which doesn't leave you with much really."

- "The not-wine tasted a bit like watered-down grape juice with a tangy aftertaste, while the wine was sharp and the alcohol made it punchier."

- "I can't think of a situation where I would voluntarily choose the not-wine over the wine, unless it was like a 21st where someone was forcing me to do a wine yardglass."

- "It smelled sweeter and fruitier than the alcoholic shiraz. It tasted like grape juice but not as sweet and had a vinegar-like aftertaste."

- "I don't like red wine, but this is quite nice."

- "It's not too bad, I'd probably drink it if I was driving."

- Sunday Star Times

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