Non-alcoholic, alcohol-free, dealcoholised… these three terms can be used pretty much interchangeably when it comes to describing a wine that contains little to no booze. What often surprises people, however, is that these wines did once contain alcohol.
They’re not a special ‘grape juice’ blend, nor are they some kind of ‘wine-flavoured’ beverage – they go through the same winemaking process as their boozy counterparts. At the end of the winemaking process, however, the alcohol is purposefully removed, either completely for wines labelled as ‘no-alcohol’, or partially for those labelled ‘low alcohol’. To qualify as ‘low alcohol’ in the UK a wine must have an ABV of 05.-1.2%. There are two main processes for doing this.
Here, the alcohol is distilled off the wine through steam. Commercial producers put the wine into an extremely strong vacuum and heat it, and as the suction of the vacuum increases, the boiling temperature of the wine decreases. This allows winemakers to heat the wine temperatures as low as 70 degrees Fahrenheit, which distils the alcohol off the wine without heating the wine too much and causing it to oxidize.
Here, winemakers use high pressure to force the wine against an extremely fine membrane – so fine that only alcohol and water can seep through it. This is repeated until the wine becomes a concentrate, with water later added back to the concentrate to create the alcohol-free wine.
What’s the difference?
There are pros and cons to each method. Vacuum distillation is relatively inexpensive, for example, but some wine drinkers believe that the main phenolic components that give the wine its floral aroma get lost or evaporate in this process. Reverse osmosis is more likely to help a wine retain its original essence, but it’s a lengthy process that can prove quite costly.
But while it is technically true that any wine – be it a £7 bottle from the corner shop or a considerably more valuable First Growth Bordeaux – could be made non-alcoholic, it certainly wouldn’t taste the same, since alcohol is responsible for a lot of a wine’s flavour properties. Non-alcoholic wines often require some further tinkering to produce the taste and mouthfeel that alcohol does.
What’s the point?
So why make it at all? Well, there’s a market for it, albeit one that probably doesn’t concern itself with the nuances and craftsmanship of wine in general. Expectant mothers, ‘Dry January’ participants and those that simply don’t care for the taste of alcohol are all helping to keep non-alcoholic wines on the shelves.
Some research also suggests that these wines can produce the same cardiovascular health benefits as wines with alcohol (enjoyed in moderation, of course), which makes them a double win for those on a health kick. But until winemaking finds a way to make non-alcoholic offerings more akin to their boozy counterparts in terms of taste and texture, connoisseurs largely agree that alcohol will be a mainstay in any good bottle.