A gentleman of a certain age is taken by surprise when a noiseless electric car sweeps alongside him, making him stumble onto the pavement. “I know it’s good for the pollution, but I can hear a petrol engine!” …
For some people, a petrol-free car is barely worthy of the name car. They miss the smell, the noise… Just as, for many of us, an alcohol-free wine seems like the craziest idea, ever! Things though, are changing. In 2018, 29% of people aged between 16 and 24 described themselves as being teetotal. At the same time, so-called “lifetime abstainers” has risen to 17%.
The shift in drinking habits is associated with healthier lifestyle habits and also cost. Whatever the reasons, the numbers are compelling and make clear why there is an increasing amount of shelf space given to alcohol-free wines and beers.
At this point it makes sense to make clear that the term ‘non-alcoholic’ shouldn’t be used in conjunction with a name that is commonly-associated with an alcoholic drink (unless you are dipping into the communion or sacramental stash!).
The correct terms are low-alcohol wine (1.2% ABV or less) and alcohol-free (0.05% ABV or less).
So, is making alcohol-free wine easy?
In a nutshell, not at all! You can’t just skip fermentation because it is this very process that gives wine its unique and varied aroma profile. And anyway, no fermentation means grape juice.
Alcohol-free is surprisingly costly. A producer may decide the answer lies in intensive canopy management in the vineyard to keep sugar levels in the grapes very low.
If that’s not an option, then it’s chemistry time! Take your pick from reverse osmosis, evaporative perstraction, humidification, vacuum evaporation … and – arguably the slickest of all – the spinning cone column.
Purists baulk at many of these techniques because they tend to take out not just alcohol but flavour components too. Humidification is the odd one out, given that it’s just a posh way of saying ‘added water’ (ahem!) …
The one system that claims not to negatively impact flavour is the spinning cone. A quick Google search will deliver you videos and in-depth explanations but in brief; for every 1% reduction in alcohol you’re after, you put 10% of the total batch through the cone. Thin film vacuum technology removes the volatiles with aromas that are removed in the first pass, stored separately and added back at the end. Alcohol is removed on the second pass from the aroma-free wine.
It is impressive – very techy and pricey too. Frankly, this is a solution for wineries with deep pockets and (most-likely) substantial volumes.
The two lowest-alcohol wines in the Vintage Roots range come courtesy of Pierre Chavin who makes some of the best reduced-alcohol wines in the business. We list his 5.5% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5.5% Chardonnay. For both wines, a blend of fresh organic grape juice is blended with a low-alcohol wine. The wines are pasteurised for stability.
Will Lyons, wine critic for The Times, wrote in January 2019, “… Pierre Chavin makes some of the best low-alcohol wines I’ve tasted…”
Alcohol in wine: When it’s good and when it’s bad.
It’s barely possible to go to a wine masterclass these days in which the impact of climate change is not discussed. Increased temperatures have had a direct impact on alcohol levels and just as many wine drinkers have found this difficult, so too have the winemakers.
Wine promotional material so-often talks about long-ripening that allows grapes to reach optimal ripeness. What this means is good phenolic ripeness and not just a grape that’s laden with sugar. Phenols are the compounds responsible for colour, tannin and flavour; all the things that make wine interesting and complex. When it is excessively hot, grapes can reach sugar ripeness at the expense of phenolic maturity and the wine’s balance is lost.
Climate alone isn’t responsible for high sugar levels – grapes play there part too. Syrah (shiraz) and primitivo naturally produce more sugar than pinot noir, for example. As a rule of thumb, white grapes have less sugar and in turn, less alcohol.
In vintages where temperatures have fallen short of the expected average, sugar levels can be troublingly low. This can lead to a loss of weight and structure in the wine which can have a negative impact on how the wine’s tannins and acidity are perceived. That’s not a desirable outcome for any wine enthusiast and that is when alcohol is definitely good!
Alcohol-Free… Wine in all but, well, alcohol!
We know the law – we cannot talk about an alcohol-free wine. To be a wine a drink has to have alcohol. However…
Excitingly, we do now have an organic non-Fermented Chardonnay, an organic non-fermented Cabernet Sauvignon and a rosé and sparkling drink that are also fully-certified organic and non-fermented. The range is called Ôpia and these delicious drinks are an opportunity to taste the individual flavours of these famous grapes but without a splash of alcohol in sight. Made by Domaines Pierre Chavin, the drinks are naturally pasteurised to avoid the use of any chemical preservatives.
Vintage Roots: An alcohol-free Zone?
In a word, no! We admire the health-conscious and sympathise deeply with those who are alcohol-intolerant. For you we will always be on the lookout for well-made, tasty wines that are either low-alcohol or alcohol-free.
But we are a wine company, happy in the knowledge that when drunk safely and moderately, alcohol – in a balanced wine – is and should be a hugely enjoyable experience.
Less than 10% ABV
A lush and vibrant German Mosel Riesling full of deep apricot and peach flavour. Clean and uplifting acidity balances the fruit.
A pair of fine reduced-alcohol wines from southern France. A blend of fresh grape juice is blended with low alcohol wine. Great balance of flavour, these are enjoyable and sensibly priced alternatives.
Delightful semi-sweet sparkling Italian wine that is a classic. Super fruity flavours of nectarine, grape and melon with honeysuckle aromas. Drink chilled it is perfect for celebrations or with desserts.
Vibrant and unoaked Gamay, bursting with red berry fruit flavour. Light to medium bodied.
A stunning biodynamic Loire red made from Cabernet Franc with 5% Cabernet Sauvignon. A real soft charmer of a wine.
Biodynamic and vegan Austrian Gruner Veltliner, which is crisp and mineral in style. Easy drinking and great with food.
Stunning new release of this benchmark wine, from the superlative 2018 vintage. ‘The holy grail of English still white wine‘ JancisRobinson.com
Stunning English wine from a great vintage. Quite Sauvignon in style, with hints of tropical fruits and elderflower blossom. Dry and full flavoured.
A natural wine of low production made with natural yeast and low sulphur. Expressive and characterful wine made in amphora. Superb, lower in alcohol but certainly not taste.