Start-up for alcohol-free wine: the white zero

Everyone knows beer without alcohol. But white wine? Now it’s supposed to become hip. On the road with the start-up Kolonne Null in riesling Rudesheim.

They want to "simply make awesome wines": Philipp Roble (right) and his colleague from Kolonne Null Photo: Matthias Neumann

Soft glide through the riparian plains of the Rheingau in a rented Seat SUV. "We just want to make super awesome wines," says Philipp Roble, and I immediately believe him. "But it’s also rad how you’ve managed to get it all down so quickly," I marvel: "Knowing people, selling stuff, knowing wines and all that." "Just get to work! That’s just the start-up mentality. We’re a bit like Tesla, maybe. Right, guys?"

Roble used to work as an artist, painted pictures and, from his native Munich, retained the consonants when speaking. He has been working with wine for a good year now and has set up a start-up in Berlin called "Kolonne Null". Its only products are alcohol-free white wine and alcohol-free sparkling wine.

Co-founder Moritz Zyrewitz, formerly managing director of another start-up (kaputt.de), has stayed in Berlin. Instead, two other colleagues get off the ICE in Frankfurt with Roble: a tomboyish "business to business" type and a PR photographer with a bob haircut and skinny legs, which he presses into the gas pedal. On to the wine, German wine, from which the alcohol is immediately removed.

For a long time, non-alcoholic beverages hardly made it into the glasses. More accurately, one would have to say: non-alcoholic offshoots of drinks that actually contain alcohol. Following the uncovering of the magic word "isotonic," which was necessary for the breakthrough of non-alcoholic beer, higher-priced zero variants of gin and even wine are now pushing their way onto the market.

Be healthy, be mindful, indulge yourself

Because wine is no longer just noble or cheap, but also young and hip. So it’s okay to experiment with it, even in more expensive price ranges. The "Generation Riesling" with its cheeky product design shows the way. And being healthy, being mindful, indulging oneself is the trend anyway. Even the epicure Alfred Biolek recently confessed to only drinking wine without alcohol.

Roble and Zyrewitz want to ferment along on this wave. "There is already alcohol-free wine – but mostly it’s sweet plorre," says Roble. "We prefer stronger wine with more acidity. The more intense, the more flavor remains." He clarifies, "We don’t make fruit juice."

In fact, more accurate than non-alcoholic wine would have to say non-alcoholic wine. The fact that it has been fermented once is also the difference from profane grape juice

But why not, actually? "Through dealcoholization, we retain some of the aromatic diversity that the wine has developed during fermentation." In fact, more accurately than alcohol-free wine, one would have to say alcohol-free wine. After all, its producers distill the very C2H6O that microbes have laboriously conjured up in the grape must and then immediately extract again. Philipp Roble and his "boys" are willing to pay a price for this: 9.50 euros for a large bottle of white wine, 12 euros for sparkling wine. Grape juice one gets for it already a small baptismal font full.

"We want to make a product for everyone, but not for the masses," says Roble. Previously only a substitute drink for pregnant women, alcohol-free wine should now form its own category, he says. "Epicureans" are the audience, he explains. "Lovers." "Drivers." There may be deals with China.

25,000 liters of Riesling will be dealcoholized today

Then he’s back on the cell phone. The founders had 5,000 liters of Gruner Veltliner produced in January, and now the last crates are going out. 13,000 liters of Silvaner have been available for a few weeks, and 25,000 liters of Riesling are to be tasted today. They are currently experimenting with rose, with red wine to follow in the fall. The bottles go to wine stores and restaurants, to some Edeka and Real stores, and also to Metro.

But why do Berlin-based founders have to come along to really exploit the gap in the market that Mosel-Rhein-Baden vintners are leaving? "For most of them, their non-alcoholic products are not the focus, they don’t use good wines for them," says Roble. Hardly anyone goes to the dealcoholizer, for example, to taste the products again in person. The photographer curves through the narrow streets of Rudesheim and comes to a stop in front of a villa near the Asbach Uralt factory: the company building of the dealcoholizer Carl Jung.

In the Rheingau, no grape is left unfermented, no even remote opportunity for wine festivals and drinking bouts goes unused. It was precisely here, however, that the process of dealcoholization by means of the vacuum method, patented in 1907, was developed by Carl Jung Junior. The principle is simple: If you heat wine or schnapps, as we know from cooking, the alcohol will eventually escape, starting at around 78 degrees Celsius. Under pressure, however, this already happens at 28 degrees.

The column extracts the alcohol from the wine

"We process seven million liters of wine per year," says Managing Director Martin Henrichs during the tour of the plant. "A thousand liters an hour is what our plant can do." And that’s where you see it: the start-up’s namesake "columns," part of the distillation apparatus. Red wine is currently flowing through them, and the alcohol that has been pumped out is splashing at the side. Seventy-two percent, explains Henrichs.

What happens to it? "That’s what we sell. This is used to make brandy." And why is a Rudesheim dealcoholizer doing the work for Berlin founders? "It’s not unusual in the food industry. Only about a third of the amount we dealcoholize is for our own products."

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What follows is what the sober troupe has come for: the taste test. I first taste the unsweetened wine – without the flavor carrier alcohol, it tastes like stomach acid. Roble and colleagues discuss how much sugar to add and decide on 33 grams per liter. "That puts you absolutely at the lower limit," Henrichs points out. You have to think about the audience, he says. "On the other hand, that’s also your special profile."

Carl Jung’s wines contain between grams per liter, while other competitors usually have more than 50. By way of comparison, Coca-Cola contains just over 100 grams of sugar per liter. "Some also use grape juice for sweetening," says Martin Henrichs. "But that’s not as neutral as sugar." A shot of carbon dioxide is also often added for more effervescence. It is also important that there is no residual sugar in the wine. Otherwise, there’s a risk that it will ferment in the plant after all, which would then result in another product category: alcoholic non-alcoholic wines.

A pleasure becomes a food

But let’s be honest – is wine without alcohol still wine at all? Isn’t it part of wine that it tastes better and better as the bottle is emptied? And how else would one endure the occasions offered with it? "Legally, it is no longer considered a stimulant, but a food," says Philipp Roble.

I drive back to Frankfurt alone, with two bottles in my luggage, one large, one small. The sparkling wine pops, after all, it tastes yeasty, a bit fruity, restrained. Not really like sparkling wine. The wine quite similar: not really like wine. Doesn’t matter, doesn’t hurt anyone. Like a traffic traffic circle on Sunday morning. The pungent alcohol note that the whole gustatory apparatus leans on when bingeing and gorging is missing. But what’s the point of even that much refinement without intensity? Even zero times a hundred is still zero.

You just don’t get drunk. The world is still there.

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