Curious about Non-Alcoholic Wine: a Delicate Balancing Act

Alcohol-free wine

Some people look at alcohol-free wine and wonder, “Why?” To which supporters of non-alcoholic wine reply, “Because.”

And with that in-depth discussion of the reasons why zero-alcohol wine exists out of the way, let’s look at what it is exactly and how it’s made.

Let’s start with a bombshell.

Non-alcoholic wine doesn’t exist

Technically, there is no such thing as alcohol-free wine. And, since you might be wondering, low-, no-, zero- and non-alcohol wines are also imaginary. This despite what you might have seen for sale on shop shelves or even on this very website.

That’s because to be called wine in the first place, the wine (with very rare exceptions) needs to have an alcohol content of 8% or more.

On top of which, almost all zero-alcohol wine has trace elements of alcohol in it. For instance, 0.5% is a number you’ll find on many bottles, sometimes right next to the words ‘no alcohol’.

So non-alcoholic wine doesn’t have enough alcohol in it to be called ‘wine’ and most of it has too much alcohol in it to be called truly ‘alcohol-free’.

But, because this article would be very short indeed if we simply said zero-alcohol wine doesn’t exist, we’ll press on.

The hardest thing to take out

Alcohol-free wine starts life as actual alcohol-based wine made in the usual way: fermentation and maturation. But before bottling for sale, the alcohol is removed.

That’s easier said than done. Turns out, alcohol is the hardest thing to remove from wine. Not necessarily because it’s hard to get rid of. That’s dead simple. Heat the wine to the point at which the alcohol evaporates. Done. But doing so oxidises the wine, spoiling it. It’s a bit like having your hair cut by chopping off your head.

So the alcohol needs to be removed carefully. There are three ways to do this.

1. Vacuum distillation. The wine is heated in a vacuum. The vacuum dramatically reduces the temperature at which alcohol boils and evaporates, avoiding the negative effects of oxidation.

2. Spinning cones. First, the wine is poured on to cones that spin at a ferocious rate. This spinning creates a centrifugal force that flattens the wine down to a thin layer.

Nitrogen gas is pumped into the spinning chamber and is used to extract the flavour components, which are stored separately.

The remaining mixture of water and alcohol is passed through the chamber again. This time the mixture is heated and the alcohol evaporates.

Then the water and the flavour components that were separated out earlier are mixed together again.

3. Reverse osmosis. Under high pressure, the wine is pushed up against a fine membrane that acts as a filter that separates the flavour compounds from the water and alcohol.

Then the alcohol is evaporated out of the water, and the water and flavour compounds reunited.

Job done?

No.

Because, as mentioned earlier, alcohol is the hardest thing to take out.

More than just the ‘buzz’

Alcohol plays an integral and significant role in how wine tastes and feels in your mouth. It is the carrier of many of the flavours you taste in wine and it gives body to wine, along with a little heat. You can’t simply take all of those things out and expect nobody to notice. Especially when you’re talking about a beefy red wine.

And it’s here that winemakers are at a disadvantage compared with beer brewers. Most beers have an alcohol content of between 3% and 5%. So the impact of the alcohol on flavour and body is less pronounced, and less obvious when you take it out.

For the same reason, trying to replicate the feel of a meaty red wine is much harder than recreating the experience of a light, zesty white number.

The challenge for winemakers is finding a way of making up for the heavy lifting done by the alcohol that’s been removed. Tannins and sugar are popular additives to help bring body and weight back to the drinking experience.

Finally, there’s the issue of the preservative properties of alcohol. While the introduction of sugar will help with storing alcohol-free wine, it isn’t really intended for long-term cellaring. While it will keep for several years if treated properly, it’s really more of a drink-on-release product.

And, just like regular wine, it needs to be drunk within a short period of time. Once the bottle is open, store in the fridge, consume within a couple of days.

Advantages of non-alcoholic wine

While there are obvious reasons people are attracted to alcohol-free wine, it has a couple of advantages over regular wine you might not immediately think of.

For a start, a good part of the price you pay at the till for a bottle of regular wine is related to its alcohol content. The more alcohol, the higher the excise duties, and excise duties are pretty stiff in Ireland. On top of which, the storage of alcoholic products is governed by strict regulations that add an additional layer of costs.

Alcohol-free wines don’t incur duty, so they are considerably cheaper than wines that contain alcohol.

Also, alcohol is calorie-dense. Less, or almost no, alcohol means far fewer calories in the wine. Some of this is offset by the addition of sugar, but there is still a significant difference in calorie content of an alcohol-free wine compared with a regular wine.

So there you have it. Everything you could possibly want to know about de-alcoholised wine. Except, maybe, what the experience of drinking it is really like. We can help with that. See our selection of alcohol-free wines below.

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