Jamie Goode: The challenges of making low/no alcohol wine
By Jamie Goode, 1 February 2024
I’ll begin this piece with a rather blunt statement: I haven’t found a no-alcohol wine that I’d like to drink. And I’ve tried a few. But I’d also counter this by saying I appreciate the efforts of those who have taken on the challenge of creating these products, and I’ve always got an open mind about trying new examples. And this is certainly a growing category in the UK, with some products doing well in the market. Some consumers clearly aren’t as fussy as me, and good luck to them.
The real question though is this: why has it been so difficult to take alcohol out of wine and end up with something that tastes like wine, just without the booze? It’s because alcohol plays a very important role in wine flavour, even though it doesn’t taste of much.
It’s importance was illustrated to me several years ago when I was doing a bit of work with alcohol reduction company ConeTech. The late Tony Dann established this enterprise to bring the spinning cone technology to wine. This is a special fractionation process that separates a liquid according to the volatility of its components. It’s a big, expensive piece of kit so people have to bring their wines in for treatment. The first fraction off the column consists of the volatiles, and these are kept: they are the all important components that give wine its aroma. Then the alcohol is removed. And then the volatiles are blended back into this newly alcohol-free wine matrix.
The original idea was to use this to tweak alcohol levels, something that had previously been done with a process called reverse osmosis. Reverse osmosis is a form of crossflow filtration that acts a bit like our kidneys. In normal filtration, liquid is forced through a membrane head on, which means that the bits that don’t go through the filter pores end up blocking the filter. In crossflow, the liquid runs at pressure through a tube made of a filtration membrane, so that the flow of liquid keeps the pores clean, and although the process requires long tubes of membrane, it’s more gentle than normal filtration. The idea here is that if you use a very fine membrane, just water and alcohol leaves and the wine remains, albeit in a concentrated form. Then the alcohol is distilled from the water/alcohol fraction, and the water is returned. Reverse osmosis requires processing much more of the wine, whereas the spinning cone only needs to treat a small portion of the wine, depending on how much the alcohol needs to be reduced by.
So ConeTech were interested in getting into the alcohol-reduction business, something that is common for even premium wines in California. And I tasted through samples of the same wine reduced to different alcohol levels, with the only difference being this alcohol reduction.
It was striking how different the wines were. Removing even the smallest amount of alcohol affects the flavour; removing a chunk of it fundamentally alters the wine, demonstrating just how much impact alcohol has on wine flavour.
Their idea was to promote wines at low alcohol levels of around 5.5%, and the big problem was what to do with the hole left by the alcohol. The reds tasted sharper and more savoury, and a bit thin. The whites showed less fruit, seemed a bit thin, and lacked charm. The answer at the time seemed to be to add sugar, which added volume that was lacking, but also gave the wines sweetness, which is unsurprising, making them less gastronomic.
So how about zero-alcohol wine? This is a huge challenge. Fermentation is needed to give complexity to wine, otherwise it would taste like grape juice. So the result is alcohol, and its removal leaves a significant hole that no one has worked out how to fill. It makes all the other components of the wine stick out a bit, and changes the way they present, so that wine no longer tastes like wine. I think the best of the bunch is probably Zeno’s Alcohol Liberated Red which sells in Waitrose for £9.99 and is doing well, but it still isn’t convincing for me to want to buy it, especially not at a price that would see it sell at £40 in most restaurants. Torres make a zero alcohol series of wines that are OK, and are a bit cheaper, but they aren’t particularly wine like.
Some of the lower alcohol options are a bit better, and I’ve had some wines at 5.5% alcohol that have a pleasant personality, but they are almost all a bit sweet. Of course, there are Mosel Rieslings at 7.5% alcohol, but these are a unique style of wine and while I love them, I’d not want to drink them all the time. New Zealand has done a lot of work creating lighter wines at the 9% level through viticulture and picking decisions, rather than alcohol reduction by spinning cone or reverse osmosis. The canopy reduction used to make these wines may shorten the life of the vines, though, and they are usually slightly disappointing when compared with their full strength peers. They do taste like wine, though.
So the real challenge of making low/no wines is this: replace the alcohol with something that does the same job as alcohol in terms of adding body and binding flavours together, and then use this to replace the alcohol that you have extracted from the wine without damaging the other components too much. If someone succeeds with this and makes something that could be confused with actual wine in a blind tasting setting, they will make a lot of money. I’m sure many are busy trialling options right now.
- Jamie Goode is a London-based wine writer, lecturer, wine judge and book author. With a PhD in plant biology, he worked as a science editor, before starting wineanorak.com, one of the world’s most popular wine websites.
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