There’s increasing interest in and demand for low- and no-alcohol beverages that might offer a good alternative to wine, beer and spirits in times of moderation. The category still causes confusion though, with consumers puzzled by the terms used and the processes involved in the production of alcohol-free products.
When it comes to alcohol-free wine the fundamental question is whether it is even wine at all. Ask Decanter answers below.
It all starts as wine
Alcohol-free wine starts its life as a regular wine.
Grapes are harvested, pressed, juice is separated from the skins (if applicable – note that red and orange wines are fermented on the skins), and fermented. During the fermentation process the sugar is transformed into alcohol, aroma and flavour compounds are integrated, and tannins and colour are extracted. The beautiful alchemy of all these elements combined is what we call wine.
An alcohol-free wine is produced through the removal of alcohol from a base wine which results, as described above, from the alcoholic fermentation of grape juice. It should not be confused with other alcohol-free beverages, notably fresh (i.e. unfermented) grape juice, whose production does not actually involve the production of wine at any point.
From a legal point of view ‘alcohol-free wine’ is not defined as a category or product in itself. Confused? You are not alone.
The term “wine” can only be used on products resulting from the alcoholic fermentation of grape juice, with an alcohol content of 8% abv or more (except for specific PDO, Protected Designation of Origin, where the minimum is below 8% abv).
Low and non-alcoholic products may be referred to as a “wine based drink”, used alongside one of the descriptors:
- Alcohol-free – can only be used to label a drink from which alcohol has been extracted and contains no more than 0.05% abv
- De-alcoholised – term used to label a drink from which alcohol has been extracted and contains no more than 0.5% abv
- Low-alcohol – the drink must be 1.2% abv or below and the label needs to indicate clearly the maximum abv.
Note that non-alcoholic cannot be used in conjunction with a name commonly associated with an alcoholic drink, in this case wine. (There is an exception, however, for non-alcoholic ‘wine’ derived from unfermented grape juice used solely for sacramental uses.)
Removing alcohol from the base wine
After the wine has been produced, following all the usual vinification steps – including, in some cases, ageing – alcohol needs to be removed.
There are three main processes through which this is commonly made:
- Vacuum distillation – High temperatures can severely damage flavour and aroma compounds. With vacuum distillation (distillation conducted within a vacuum chamber), the heat needed to remove the alcohol is considerably lower, therefore causing less damage to flavour and aroma. Still, most of the more delicate aroma compounds do volatilise along with the evaporating alcohol. Most alcohol-free wines made through this process notably lack the more subtle, floral aromas.
- Reverse osmosis – This is in fact a combined process of filtration followed by distillation. First, the aroma compounds and phenolics are filtered effectively creating a wine concentrate. The alcohol is then distilled from the liquid. Finally, the water (i.e. the liquid from which alcohol was removed) is added back to the wine concentrate. This is a laborious process and it can take up to four passes for all the alcohol to be removed.
- Spinning cone – the basis of this technology is breaking the wine’s multiple components apart and then reassembling them without the alcohol. Again, quite a complex process that needs to be handled carefully and involves different, consecutive steps. Repeated evaporation and condensation cycles at low temperatures using inverted cones and centrifugal forces separate the constituent elements in iterative steps. They are then blended together again (without the alcohol) in a process very much akin to making a wine’s final blend, to retrieve the balance of sugar, acidity, weight, texture and flavour.
For balance to be achieved, some elements are sometimes added after dealcoholisation, in an attempt to compensate for the loss of aroma, flavour and texture. Sugar (usually concentrated grape must), botanicals and tannins (either synthetic or from, for example, tea leaves) are among the most common.
But why is it so expensive?
Alcohol-free wine is not categorised as an alcoholic beverage and therefore not subject to alcohol duty.
On the other hand, the equipment and technology used to remove alcohol from wine are complex and expensive. The economy of scale is not there either, at least yet. While a winemaker might produce thousands of bottles of a given wine, only a small percentage will be used to produce an alcohol-free version, which will then be packaged and marketed separately.
The additional costs of the dealcoholisation process, logistics and dedicated marketing significantly surpass the alcohol duty. So you can easily expect to spend more, rather than less, for a low or no-alcohol wine.
Passing the taste test
One of the main issues raised by consumers has been that alcohol-free wine simply doesn’t pass the taste test.
This is not because it is, necessarily, a lesser quality product. But the fact is the processes through which alcohol is removed also extract aroma, flavour and textural components, thereby affecting the complexity and depth of our final, alcohol-free drink. Even distillation at a very low temperature will cause the subtler, most volatile aromas to be extracted along with alcohol. The initial filtration process in reverse osmosis, on the other hand, removes tannins and other bigger phenolic molecules which are key elements
This is undoubtedly one of the biggest challenges for the production and market-placement of dealcoholised wine. Existent technology, albeit much more advanced than a few years ago, still doesn’t allow the production of a drink that is as complex and deep, but simply free of alcohol.
Moreover, alcohol plays a key role in how we experience all the other components in wine. As it evaporates in the glass it acts as a vehicle for aromas. It also adds body and texture, while giving structural support to other textural elements, such as phenolic compounds.
Producing a good alcohol-free ‘wine based drink’ is not an easy task and certainly comes at a cost for both producers and consumers.
You can read the complete legal guidelines on low-alcohol descriptors on the UK Government’s website.