Tim James: Cutting down the alcohol

By , 23 August 2022



Lautus as made by Reg Holder – on a mission to produce non-alcohol wines of “complexity, elegance and finesse”.

Hello – my name is Tim and I am a heavy drinker. Like most people professionally involved in the wine industry, that is; and I’m not sure I entirely trust those that aren’t. The heaviness of my drinking is according to the tables drawn up by doctors and various concerned state and non-state organisations around the world – and I daresay they are right, even if I’m inclined to ignore those who insist that virtually any alcohol intake is excessive and toxic. Carcinogenic too, I’m convincingly informed. But so is misused sunshine. And life?

Unfortunately, the makers of dealcoholised wine, or even low-alcohol wine, aren’t helping enough, except to the extent that if I were forced to choose between their products and water, I’d most likely go for the latter. I’ll return to this.

Fortunately – and I don’t use the word lightly: I accept that I am fortunate in this regard – while I am probably damaging my body and losing braincells at an increased rate that I can’t well afford (as becomes clearer by the day), I don’t suffer (or make others suffer) from what might be called the behavioural side of the “problem”. I’ve just looked at the website of the USA’s National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism where there is a list of 11 criteria which helps you diagnose whether your “alcohol use disorder” is mild, moderate or severe. Incidentally the NIAAA broadly defines heavy drinking for men as “5 or more drinks on any day or 15 or more per week” (a bit less for women) – well, yes, I certainly manage 15 or more “drinks” per week. Don’t you?

The only one of the 11 criteria that gives me pause is the one about “Recurrent alcohol use in situations in which it is physically hazardous”, because I think that includes driving a car when over the legal limit. Which I occasionally might do (don’t you?), though never when I have been what I would consider heavily drinking. 

I’ve been musing on this topic because of a New Yorker article I’ve just read called “Zero-proof therapy” (which alerted me to those NIAAA criteria) by a non-drinking problem-drinker. In a larger context, the article took in considerations of alcohol-free beer, wine and even spirits. Mostly beer, because the author, John Seabrook, found so many delicious examples of dealcoholised craft beers.

That seems reasonable to me. Never much of a beer-drinker, I tend to turn to the no-alc version of it when I’m in a social drinking situation and don’t want to drink too much wine or other alcohol because I’m driving. It’s a long drink, it’s a grown-up drink, I enjoy it, and don’t suffer too much from deprivation when it’s available. Frankly, I’m not particularly aware of the difference from genuine beer (but, as I say, I’m no connoisseur), though I don’t think there’s the range of no-alc beers that there is of the orthodox version. It’s clear that the brewery technicians have largely solved the flavour-texture-weight problems in removing alcohol from beer and leaving behind a pretty convincing – and anyway pretty delicious – simulacrum.

Not so the poor winemakers with their scrawny tipple. I gather (without knowing anything about it all – please don’t challenge me) that “alcohol-free beer” can even be produced without the stuff ever having fermented in the first place, though beer, with it’s comparatively small initial alcohol level, can also be stripped of its power by technical means. There’s no way that that can happen with our beloved grape juice. Wine that’s de-alcoholised (ie with less than 0.5% according to local regulations; alcohol-free must have less than 0.05%), or with significantly reduced alcohol (around 5%, say), requires the removal of alcohol from full-strength wine, most commonly by spinning-cone technology.

What happens, they say, is that the aroma/flavour essence is removed from the wine, followed by the alcohol, after which the essence is returned. Sounds simple and fine, but in my experience it is really hard to find that “essence” in the finished product. It’s there in an insipid way in the low-alc wines, because those are usually concocted from a mixture of de-alc and standard wine. But while some (only some) of the de-alc wines are vaguely pleasant enough to drink, any varietal character has become tenuous, though there might be some vaguely appropriate mild fruitiness. Acid and tannin, yes, but obviously that crucial alcoholic weight (which I often enough find inadequate for vinosity even in some hipster wines of around 10-11% alcohol) is entirely lacking. Sugar or bubbles can help make up for it up to a point – but most low-alc drinkers don’t want piles of sugar calories either.

A real problem, then, for wine-lovers, and one I’m sure that a lot of big drinks corporations are scratching their scientific heads over, because the no- and low-alc market is already big, and projected to get even bigger in the near future – and don’t even begin to think that low-alc means low-cost when it comes to wine. There must be many wine-drinkers who would on occasion (or permanently) like to turn to drink that is healthier, less calorific, and less likely to get them arrested for drunk driving. Many are already turning to what the de-alc producers are offering.

I’m pretty sure that, for now at least, if you’re a genuine wine-lover, the transition to the low-alc stuff is just not on. I’m not being extreme when I say I’d rather drink water. Actually I can think of a great many full-strength wines that I’d be delighted to substitute with water, too. Not Coke with my dinner; not milk with anything other than granola or coffee. De-alc beer is great. Water is wonderful with food, really. With ersatz wine I feel much the same as I do about plastic pseudo-wood flooring. No. Anything but.

  • Tim James is one of South Africa’s leading wine commentators, contributing to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013.


1 comment(s)

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    Stewart Prentice | 24 August 2022

    Hi Tim, I agree the beer problem has been largely solved. There are several really decent very low alcohol beers on the market. Wine though is still not there unfortunately. This is an important point which I’m glad you’ve raised (again).

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