Fresh off a feature in the New York Times, Johannes Leitz has well and truly positioned himself as one of pre-eminent winemakers flying the flag for non-alcoholic wines. He's been producing his non-alcoholic range – Eins-Zwei-Zero – since 2016, but its success was built off the back of 35 years of industry experience. He took over the Leitz family winery, in the German region of Rüdesheim, when he was just 20 years old and has since expanded its vineyard holdings from 2.9 hectares to 40. These days, Leitz receives international acclaim for his alcoholic wines – the rieslings in particular – though as his recent press coverage has proven, the Eins-Zwei-Zero is closing in quickly.
At ClearMind, we're proud to have stocked a riesling, sparkling riesling, sparkling rosé and pinot noir from the Eins-Zwei-Zero range for some time now. And with Leitz's new non-alcoholic cabernet sauvignon arriving in February '22, we're excited to introduce red-wine lovers to the world of top-tier non-alc wines, courtesy of one the best in the business. Here's what Johannes had to say about his journey so far:
What inspired you to create a non-alcoholic range of wines?
"We started to produce the alcohol-free range in 2016. I was travelling for work and spending a lot of time in Norway, and my friend, a chef, asked if I could supply his restaurant with a high-end alcohol-free wine. He didn't want to put grape juice on the menu, but he needed an option for drivers that wasn't a soft drink. I don't think many people know that if you're caught drink-driving in Norway, you're fined 10% of your yearly income. It doesn't matter how much money you make – the penalty is the same. So, we began to investigate what the possibilities were and our first batch was a small production of 5000 litres. We quickly sold out, so the batches grew larger and larger."
What convinced you of the Eins-Zwei-Zero range's potential?
"We were fortunate, at the time, to be widely known and have a very high reputation for our alcoholic wines, but this also meant that we were definitely taking a bit of a risk. The moment, for me, was when I was in Sweden showing the first non-alcoholic wines to a friend. He was quite happy with it and his chef – a guy called Anders – served raw oysters with a vinigiarette made out of cucumbers and apples. We had a glass of non-alcoholic riesling with them and I was so thrilled with the experience and realised that yes, this is a serious product."
How was the Eins-Zwei-Zero range received when it launched?
"That experience in Sweden – the oysters and non-alcoholic riesling – gave me the confidence to take the wine to the largest wine fair in the world: ProWein in Dusseldorf. There was a really positive response to it; not necessarily through the roof, but still absolutely amazing for a non-alcoholic wine. And it was mostly from high-end restaurants who were after an alternative to wine. I think I've had some quite good ideas in my life, but that's when I realised that this might be the best one. So far, at least."
How do you counter any opposition to non-alcoholic wines?
"I always say, 'Listen, you're not talking about a classical wine here.' It's something different, and from my point of view, it's the closest alternative to a real wine. Some people are concerned about sugar, but again, a soft drink will have maybe two or three times the sugar as our wines. The other concern is price; people argue that without alcohol, the wine is missing something. It has lost the alcohol, so why isn't it cheaper? It's quite sad for us, but I think that people are becoming more understanding of what it takes to make a really good non-alcoholic wine and will be happy to pay for the quality. That's the other thing: ten years ago, alcohol-free products were very, very poor quality and still suffer from that reputation. But now we have products that are so close to the real thing that you're hardly able to distinguish the difference."
What's most important when making a good non-alcoholic wine?
"Normally, I'd never talk badly about our competitors. And never, in 35 years, have I said a bad word about others making classical wines, but when it comes to non-alcoholic, other producers have been using faulty wines as their base and still do. It might have volatile acidity, or be a really cheap, high-yield wine from Spain, but the quality isn't there. I have to admit that our secret is quite simple: we're the only real, high-end winery that uses its own wines for the non-alcoholic range. I think that's the reason for our success."
What does the future hold for non-alcoholic wine?
"We've had success we never, ever imagined, especially since the New York Times article came out. I'm a guy who loves to describe things on a scale of 1–10, and if we're speaking in terms of reality versus expectation, this is easily an 11. I never thought our venture into non-alcoholic wine would go as well as it has, but the people are so, so ready for it. I heard a nice sentiment about non-alcoholic wine; that it should be like coffee, in the sense that you decide whether you'd like your coffee with or without milk. And I hope that in 10 years, we'll be asking people if they'd like their wine with or without alcohol. The success and reach of the wines has been amazing, but it's often the small things that make me really happy. Like hearing from someone who felt like we'd brought them back into the 'wine world', and helped connect with friends, because they didn't have to sit around with a soft drink or water in their hand. It's simple, but it's important."