In my My Top Five Champagne Predictions for 2022 one of the trends I flagged was the rise in popularity of low and no-alcohol bubbly.
Five years ago, when I started Bubble & Flute, if you asked me to try a low or no-alcohol sparkling wine, I would have thought you’d gone mad.
But now, five years later, I am – of course – five years older and am finding I feel the effects of alcohol more… poor sleep, dehydration, and just feeling fuzzy or slow the next day, even after just a few glasses. As the kind of person who likes to seize the day, live life to the max and smash a good, hard early morning workout, booze really does slow me down.
And so now I find myself actually wanting to find an option that tastes great, satisfies the need that sits at the heart of the experience of drinking a glass of bubbles (it feels social, fun and special), but doesn’t interfere with my busy and active life.
And apparently, I am not the only one.
According to Nielsen data, retail sales of nonalcoholic wines in the United States skyrocketed during the year ending on 20 Feb 2021, rising 34 percent over those 52 weeks after staying relatively stable from 2016 through 2019. Annual sales were worth roughly $36 million over the year which is only a tiny fraction of the entire wine category which saw sales of more than $21 billion in that period. Other forms of no or low-alcohol beverages are way ahead of wine too but there is a sharp rise in demand.
And with the rise in demand for products, there is also growing demand for high quality and better tasting options.
So I set out to learn more about low-alcohol wines.
Here’s what I discovered.
There is a difference between non-alcoholic, low-alcohol, and de-alcoholised wines
Non-alcoholic, low-alcohol and de-alcoholised wines are not all the same thing.
The regulations vary a little from country to country but fundamentally, in order for a product to be called ‘wine’ it has to have undergone partial or complete fermentation of fresh grapes and contain a minimum percentage of alcohol. In Australia, that is 4.5% by volume.
Anything less can’t actually be called wine – it needs to have a descriptor that conveys its actual nature, such as ‘light alcohol wine’, ‘reduced alcohol wine’ or ‘de-alcoholised wine’.
De-alcoholised wines present as being closest to the “real thing” as they have undergone the full fermentation process wine undergoes and have the alcohol removed, and then generally it is impossible to remove all the alcohol and a residual amount remains.
A lot of true zero or no alcohol wines are actually just grape juice. They haven’t undergone the process of fermentation and really taste nothing like wine – they are literally grape juice or sparkling grape juice if they are bubbly.
How is the alcohol removed?
De-alcoholized wine is produced after fermentation in one of three ways: vacuum distillation, spinning core technology and reverse osmosis.
This method raises the temperature of the wine to cause evaporation. Still at relatively low temperatures, volatile compounds separate from the wine via evaporation, including a lot of pleasant aroma compounds that ultimately give wine its aroma. Some of these aromas are collected and kept to be blended back into the wine later in the process. Despite the attempt to bring back the aromas, wines made with this technique tend to lack aromatics, particularly floral aromas according to Wine Folly.
I couldn’t find as much information about this technique but it essentially refines the vacuum distillation method with multiple rounds of low-temperature evaporation. Centrifugal forces from rotating, inverted cones create a very thin film of wine allowing wine makers to quickly and efficiently extract the aromatics and then alcohol before re-introducing the aromas into the de-alcoholized wine.
Reverse Osmosis filters out the aroma compounds and phenolics at a molecular level, seperating them based on molecular size before the alcohol is removed by distillation. It takes numerous cycles (2-4) to completely remove the alcohol before re-introducing the aromas into the de-alcoholised wine. Because in this technique the wine is not heated, it helps the de-alcoholised wine retain its varietal character and wine-like structure.
The ongoing challenge in making de-alcoholised wine is to retain the aromas, balance, mouthfeel and overall quality. From my research, no matter the method, some of the aroma is lost in the process as well as some tannins.
Different producers are adding various other elements including sugar or concentrated grape must to replace the mouthfeel of alcohol. And they are employing a range of techniques to play with the texture or flavours including fruit juice to green tea to botanicals and cannabis-derived constituents.
And so the big question is – what do they really taste like?
Partly out of curiosity and partly to check the impact on my overall health, I am embarking on a Feb-Fast journey to taste 18 different de-alcoholised sparkling wines and report back.
I am NOT expecting any of them to taste like champagne or even a good sparkling wine. They are not made the same way so they will be different.
What I am looking for are alternatives to alcohol when I want to drink something that feels special or indulgent, that is enjoyable to my palate and personal taste, and that I can enjoy AND drive AND wake up the next day and feel 100%.
Whatever the reasons, it’s clear from the growing market size that plenty of people seem to want to explore moderating their alcohol consumption (and caloric intake) but still enjoy the experience and the taste, all without the effects of alcohol such as impaired judgment and function and a hangover!
See you at the end of the Month with everything I’ve learnt and if you have a suggestion or have tried a low-alcohol wine you enjoy, let me know.