By Manuel Ausloos
PARIS (Reuters) - When a pandemic lockdown kept the French indoors in 2020, Augustin Laborde decided to give up wine but struggled in Paris to find a non-alcoholic alternative.
Two years later, Laborde has opened what he says is the first alcohol-free wine store in a country renowned the world over for its Bordeaux red wines and white Burgundies.
"We're responding to very strong demand," he said. "We're already receiving proposals to open similar shops elsewhere in France."
France, where vineyards cover the landscape from the Jura mountains in the east to the foothills of the Pyrenees in the southwest, is the second largest consumer of wine, behind only the United States, 2021 figures from the International Organisation of Vine and Wine show.
While non-alcoholic drinks have gained popularity elsewhere, they have lagged in France.
The country's consumption of non-alcoholic wine grew by 4% in 2021, compared with growth of 24% worldwide, consultancy group IWSR Drinks Market Analysis found.
But even in France attitudes are changing as alcohol awareness campaigns highlight its health risks and well-being trends gain traction.
"We see a strong interest for low-alcohol and no-alcohol beverages” alcohol addiction researcher Mickael Naassila told Reuters. "People are more concerned about their health."
Customers in Augustin Laborde’s shop echoed that view.
As she tasted a glass of alcohol-free red wine, Helene Bourgy said the drink was a compromise that allowed for an alcohol-free but still “festive atmosphere”.
Even if the French have been slow to take up non-alcoholic drinks, their wine consumption has fallen from 20th-century peaks.
It dropped from over 20 litres of alcoholic drinks sold per inhabitant in 1961, to 5.6 litres in 2020, according the French Observatory of drugs and addictive tendencies (OFDT).
While the French are drinking less in quantity, they are favouring quality, Naassila said, as the country's love of wine is deeply rooted.
“(French people) realise that they have to decrease their level of consumption,” he says. "They still love gastronomy and I am sure they will continue to drink."
(Reporting by Manuel Ausloos; Editing by Barbara Lewis)