I’ve made a New Year’s Resolution: De-Alcoholized Wine. I’ve resolved to study this misunderestimated wine market niche. Heck, I might even drink some!
My resolution is provoked by a friend who had a bad bicycling accident. She’s going to be OK, but she suffered a serious head injury and her doctor says no alcohol while her brain recovers from the shock.
No Wine? No Way!
No alcohol? Well, that’s easy enough. But no wine? No way! Wine is more than just alcohol — it’s civilization. And so she’s exploring the possibilities of de-alcoholized products as a way to enjoy wine without having to deal with the negative effects of alcohol. And she is not alone.
A lot of people are interested in alcohol-free beverages — you see non-alcoholic beer all the time at summer picnics, for example, and I think every holiday party features non-alcoholic alternatives like sparkling cider and fruit juices. Less alcohol means fewer calories, another advantage. No reason why wine shouldn’t be added to this mix.
In fact there might be particular reasons to consider wine, since it famously features health benefits. Many supermarkets feature gourmet grape juice as a health product and growers like Draper Valley Vineyards bottle unfermented juice of Riesling, Pinot Noir and other wine grape varieties. These juices are delicious, but they don’t taste like wine. In fact I have my students taste them so they can see how much different wine is from its juice.
With only a couple of exceptions (I think Moscato might be one of them), wine grape juice does not taste like the corresponding wine. The magic of fermentation does more than produce alcohol, it changes things in a good way. So making the wine then removing the alcohol is the way to go.
Haven’t Tried It? Yes You Have!
Have you ever tried de-alcoholized wine? I’ll bet you have and don’t know it!
That’s because a lot of today’s wine is actually partially de-alcoholized. Some but not all the alcohol’s been removed (don’t look on the label — the info isn’t there). It is not uncommon for wineries to take a portion of their wine and have the alcohol removed, with the resulting liquid blended back into the original vat, lowering the average alcohol level by a percent or two. Why do they do it? To correct the taste or style. And sometimes to bring the alcohol level below the 14 percent threshold where higher federal tax rates kick in.
No one talks much about this (or about the practice of adding “jesus units” — water — to fermenting wine to accomplish more or less the same result) but I am told that it happens all the time. Imagine how much of a punch some of those big Zins and Shiraz/Syrahs would have if they weren’t tamed a bit!
My bicycling friend reports that the de-alcoholized wines she’s tried have been very satisfactory. They are clearly wine, not grape juice, she reports, and while the flavors and aromas aren’t as complex, they provide the civilized experience she seeks. “I find it a very acceptable way to feel like you’re drinking your traditional glass of wine with appetizer or dinner, especially if you have compelling reasons to avoid alcohol intake.”
Red, White and Orange?
De-alcoholized wine actually contains a tiny bit of alcohol, but can be sold as a non-alcoholic beverage so long as it contains less than 0.5 percent alcohol by volume. Amazingly, this is about the same amount of alcohol you will find in orange juice. Really!
A trip to my local upscale supermarket revealed a surprisingly good selection of de-alcoholized wines (six still wines and one sparkler) selling for about $5 (a holiday discount price) to $12. Fre (a Sutter Home brand) and Ariel (owned by J. Lohr Vineyards) are the two largest producers and accounted for all the wine I saw.
Other brands you might see here in the U.S. include Carl Jung from Germany and posssibly Vandalia from Napa Valley, the subject of a 2010 Wall Street Journal story (they’ll sell you a case of their 2002 de-alcoholized Cabernet Sauvignon for $200 if you act now). Other countries have de-alcoholized wines, too, including Wine Zero in Italy.
Interestingly, the two big U.S. brands are made in very different ways. Both begin with wine, of course. Ariel uses reverse osmosis to remove alcohol and water, resulting in a concentrated wine. The image above (from the Ariel website) shows how it works. Fresh water is added to the de-alcoholized wine concentrate before bottling.
Fre, on the other hand, uses the spinning cone method to remove alcohol and then adds back in a small amount of the unfermented juice to give the wine better body.
A Growing Market Segment?
I wrote to both companies asking for sales data but neither sent a reply. I wanted to test my hunch, which is that sales of de-alcoholized wine are growing. This might make sense since interest in wine is on the rise and concern about alcohol’s health effects is also strong. Possibly these two trends are in complete conflict, but maybe there is an overlapping niche where brands for Fre and Ariel (and the juice products, too).
Now that I am sensitive to the issue, I seem to see news reports about head trauma problems everywhere — in the international news about soldiers returned form overseas duty, for example, and in the sports pages where football, hockey and even soccer injuries are reported. I can’t help thinking that my bicycle-riding friend is not alone among head trauma patients in her desire to enjoy wine in some form during her recovery.
My New Year’s Toast: Raise a wine glass (alcohol optional) to good health. Cheers!