The market for low or no alcohol wines is on the rise – both in its making and at home
Non-alcohol and low-alcohol drinks have shown a remarkable turnaround in recent years. Joining such species as the session cocktails and mocktails, hard seltzers and near-beers, wine has been rapidly expanding and making some interesting advances in this space.
Not exactly risqué, nor often impressionable, de-alcoholized wine is not without its challenges. Technological outlay renders the option inaccessible to many small wineries, as does the red tape. Add to this the methods themselves, uncustomary and precarious, often rendering examples resistant to the majority: a flavour profile unequivocal to your everyday wine perplexes the intellectual schema.
But, since the concept is no novel idea, why the hype now?
Merging with the fact that, for most, drinking is less about the kick and more about the ritual, the idea of less impact on health has, not surprisingly, proven popular with the growing number of wellness-concerned individuals – and simultaneous to all of this, a movement towards sublimating those midweek inclinations is emerging.
The thought of no after-effects is highly appealing: the ability to drive back from a 5 à 7 with friends, or to just go home, wind down with a glass in slippers and sweats – and still be up with the lark.
COVID-19 has also spurred significant interest into the genre, as many have either had time to reflect on their liberal lifestyle, or have since vowed vastation of their lockdown escape habits. Although I’m convinced that this is no short-lived trend, I’m sure that the epidemic herd mentality has a lot to do with it, too.
Advantaged at the juncture of health consciousness and a warming climate, the low alcohol category no longer idles on the side, and at the macro, wine seeks its recourse. Average alcohol levels have furtively crept upwards – a direct reflection of heightened sugar content in the grapes – making that one small glass easily feel like two, and harnessing this issue in the vineyard, perhaps preventing it, by less rather bionic measures, is at the forefront of efforts.
A skim through the various high-tech and biological manipulations hinged on trial, research and innovation will demonstrate how NA is no longer a dispirited category. More serious renditions are forthcoming – emulating the taste of traditional wine, however, is the perennial challenge.
Ends and means
Regular wines range between 11 and 15 per cent alcohol contrent; fortified wines upwards of 20 per cent, with those deemed ‘lower alcohol’ widely regarded as being at 10 per cent or less.
Alcohol adds to the perception of ‘body’, or weight, on the palate, so when a wine is stripped of its strength, that missing substance is often compensated for with sugar. Too much sweetness, however, is seen as a glaring error, running counter to the preferences of today’s consumer, and is, in part, one reason why the style has suffered for so long. In many ways, the sparkling versions tend to shine in this area, as the bubbles enhance that sense of fullness in the mouth.
Simply adding water to dilute strength is done, but is not regarded as qualitative, nor is it even permitted in many appellations. Legislative barriers aim to uphold the reputation of a particular region’s wines, but as the zero-proof scene has become a larger phenomenon, many of those limits have been a stumbling block for producers to enter further into the market. Strides are underway, however.
As any EU wine cannot be defined as such below 8.5 per cent volume, a new policy is underway to accommodate the subset, when in 2023, official title and mandate will be given for and the many appellations therein to subsequently draw up their own laws around alcohol adjustments.
Putting a fully fermented wine through the wringer will undoubtedly plane off some fruit flavours, as well as throw a wrench into that all-important ‘balance’; those constituents which work in tandem – acidity, concentration of fruit flavours, sugars and tannins – to offer an harmonious sensation and flavour.
The quality of the original liquid is crucial, which, in order to mask the missing attributes alcohol carries, should be concentrated in and complex with fruit flavours. And certainly, whatever the technology of choice, a minor reduction is palatably preferable and much less work with regards to achieving that balance.
A virtual total removal (give or take 0.5% per cent), or a marginal one, can be achieved with either vacuum distillation, reverse osmosis or the spinning cone method. Depending on which route is taken, a wine’s constituents are fractionated, each one set aside, only to be later carefully re-blended, excluding all or a proportion of the removed alcohol.
Vacuum distillation, the very method whereby spirit is distilled, has long been the standby, but in the case of wine manipulation the process occurs within a reduced atmospheric pressure space. Here, alcohol can actually be boiled off at room temperature, which prevents cooking the wine.
Reverse osmosis involves cross-flow filtration, which separates the alcohol and water together. The alcohol is then distilled from the water, with the water portion subsequently reincorporated into the other components. Because of the return of the water, the method may not be permitted in some areas due to the risk of diluting quality.
The spinning cone, considered the gentlest and least invasive method, has become most preferred. Poured into a column containing a series of inverted cones, wine spins into a thin film upon the surface of each cone, allowing the vapours of virtually each drop to be lifted, in which the constituents are then condensed and separated. The desired degree of alcohol can be chosen prior to a full removal, and as it involves no heat and little destruction to the original sample’s integrity, the method seems to dole out some dewy cameos of the regular counterpart. The downside is that it requires large volumes.
The mechanical factor of these methods, much less appealing to the masses, diverges from the mood of the moment which is very much about provenance. Vineyard forethought is where much investment lies; the handiwork of preventative pursuit – worth a pound of cure; bedside manner – more natural, potentially less capital intensive, is the focus of research and development to grow grapes predestined for low alcohol – which in turn may be more widely accepted.
“Not by might nor by power”
Our warming planet is working against low-abv aims and much impetus towards broadening the category arises from climate change-induced alcohol increases.
Strongly correlated to the amount of sugar in the grapes at harvest, alcohol content is an expository of the detriment hotter summers are causing by hastening the ripening process and increasing sugar levels – depending on where you live. Indeed, regions once thought to be too cool for viticulture are now coming into their own, and those which once had the climate ideal are now walking an alcohol balance tightrope.
To put this into perspective, Jane Anson, the world’s top Bordeaux expert, estimates “alcohol averages have risen significantly, from closer to 12 per cent average in the mid 20th century (in Bordeaux) to closer to 13.5 even 14 per cent average today.”
But is there any way to prevent this instead of having to pump the wine through a machine, or worse, sluicing it?
It comes down to farming strategically. A fundamental route would be to begin planting on north-facing slopes (if you’re in the northern hemisphere), or at least, away from the afternoon’s beaming sun. You might harvest the grapes early when the sugar content is lower, but in many cases, the result is an anemic final product or an overly bitter one. Moreover, it’s generally unconducive to producing the style many consumers go for; casual drinkers or those newly introduced to wine are yet after a dense, robust palate.
Turning heads more recently, are the impressive low alcohol bottlings, which are the offspring of more analytical MO’s. Approaches such as precision viticulture which entails an acute observance of a vineyard’s variances and then developing tailored remedies; working with early-ripening grape varieties and those which possess inherently pronounced aromatics; or, certain clones which necessarily accumulate less sugar.
In the winery, yeast strain choice is a hot topic; deploying those which can either increase glycerol, which gives wine a mouth-coating sensation; inhibit high alcohol achievement; or, promote drawn out fermentations, offering a winemaker more control.
Transparency for the consumer and, for the producer, leverage gained through varietal or origin marketing is definitely an added benefit to producing this sort of wine in this manner. This may, too, ease the framing effect, refashioning low abv wine with a sense of identity and spiritual economy. And, within its own parameters, may potentially be – or at least appear to be – the healthiest choice. After all, was it not microbiologist Louis Pasteur, the man credited for uncovering the microscopic miracle of fermentation, who said “Wine is the most healthful and most hygienic of beverages”?
Amid worldwide consumption decreases, wine is losing market share to other strong beverages. The prevalent culture no longer views wine as a commodity, nor is it seen as the waspy drink it once was, taking on a more casual air. Still, there remains an ongoing struggle to appeal to younger generations.
Self betterment and convenience – the stuff millennials run on – make up much of marketing aims. Ready-to-drink and single-serve options are thus gaining traction, as they provide a degree of portion control.
It all trickles down to the buzz phrase ‘drink less but better’ – and to seeing your glass as half full. As one who tends to put things out there the Gretchen way, allow me to flip the story: if the trend is the offspring of a somewhat wider metanoia, then presumptively, its parousia, much like the mindfulness movement, stems from widespread inward unrest.
There’s an ongoing desire to regulate our daily lives – to “bring it into subjection” – but, when wine appreciation – not inebriation – is made a part of that desire, there’s little room left for impulsion or compulsion. The victor for self-control – rather, the conqueror of temptation – is a far greater picture of strength – I think – than completing an Ironman course.
Granted, the mindfulness movement has had an impact on how we eat and drink, but this art of being mindful of what’s in your glass does not exclude that aspect of social etiquette. What might not be quite enough for one may be more than sufficient for another.
And, if relevant, may I stress, both by precept and by instinctual consideration, respecting the limitations of others. Pressing someone to partake of more than they have inclination for is somewhat crass – in fact, I would go as far as to say it’s a breach of the categorical imperative.
No need to finish off that bottle. Those two tablespoons left can stay there.
In the same way, and from where much reluctance stems, there should be no embarrassment in ordering or uttering preference for NA when out. The few who dare are usually not easily won by it and askance looks of disapproval are common – and yet, late adopters are the more.
At the first plunge, one cannot expect to taste “wine” as they know it; regarding it subjectively is key. Be wise enough not to proclaim its deficiencies and the critics will walk away disarmed. While this may only offer a modicum of opportunity over threat, it may gain an even higher degree of encomium than, perhaps, it actually merits. If it pleases – producers will be asked to renew their efforts. People will not be afraid of the label, the growing partisans or the drink itself – every drop of which makes one hope it might be the last.