Just 20 years ago, blending the worlds of wine and wellness would have been considered a foreign, and perhaps even blasphemous, idea. But times have changed, and as drinkers are monitoring their alcohol intake more regularly, there is an emerging category of wine that’s allowing people to enjoy their adult beverages, or live a life of abstinence without all the alcoholic guilt: low- and no-alcohol wines.
Unlike big-bodied Cabernet Sauvignons and Chardonnays that can range well over 13% alcohol by volume, low- and no-alcohol wines generally fall under 11% ABV, from where they dwindle down to, well, no alcohol at all.
The trend has become popular with drinkers of all backgrounds whether they’re looking to cut back for religious, health, or personal reasons. And it’s a category that is setting the wine shelf ablaze; no- and low-alcohol drinks are expected to make up about 31% of the market by 2024, according to U.K. research firm, International Wines and Spirits Record. A reduced amount of alcohol also results in less sugar, and in some instances, less calories, making low- and no-alcohol wines a healthier option for cutting calories.
So expect to see more of them. But what, exactly, are they? How can a wine be classified as no-alcohol when alcohol is a natural product of a grape’s fermenting process? And what does the removal of alcohol mean for all the things drinkers love about wine like taste, complexity, and character?
Technology meets wine
Without the weight that alcohol adds to a wine’s structure, the wine will need other components to influence taste and structure.
Well, this is where the worlds of technology and wine collide. No-alcohol wines have had an unpleasant reputation for lackluster and downright awful taste in the past. However, technological advancements have helped winemakers develop better quality no-alcohol wines that don’t taste terrible.
At Freixenet Mionetto, one of the world’s biggest sparkling wine producers and the maker of Mionetto Prosecco, winemakers rely on a unique vacuum technology to create its Alcohol-Removed Premium Sparkling White and Rosé wines.
“Both the sparkling white and rosé start as traditional wines with 10% to 11% alcohol. To extract the alcohol without compromising flavor and aroma, the wine is heated at 86 degrees Fahrenheit,” says Enore Ceola, CEO and President of Freixenet Mionetto USA.
Although heating the wine in a vacuum to remove the alcohol is considered the least refined method of alcohol removal by some experts, winemakers at Freixenet Mionetto take a few extra steps to ensure their Alcohol-Removed Premium Sparkling White and Rosé wines maintain their fragrance and overall taste despite their 0 to 0.05 ABV.
“When alcohol is removed from wine through the vacuum process, the wine is left with an unpleasant acidic, bitter taste. In order to improve upon this taste, we add sugar — as done with all winemaking processes — and additional natural grape aromatics,” Ceola continues.
Then there’s the spinning cone, a method that’s not too distant from the vacuum. With spinning cone columns, the wine undergoes low-temperature evaporation and condensation through inverted cones, which quickly separates the alcohol from the wine before everything is blended together again. It’s a process that Trinchero winemakers use to create the Pinot Grigio, rosé, and Cabernet Sauvignon wines under the winery’s Mind & Body label — all of which have between 9% and 8.5% ABV and only 90 calories per serving.
“We use traditional winemaking methods to achieve flavor, texture, and balance. Then we use a spinning cone column to remove alcohol from a small amount of the wine, while preserving the wine’s delicate aromas and flavors. Finally, we blend the traditional and de-alcoholized wine to create Mind & Body,” says Brie Wohld, VP of Marketing at Trinchero.
Another way to remove alcohol is through a cross-flow filtration system that primarily operates like reverse osmosis. Similar to the purification systems that can separate ions, unwanted molecules, and other particles from drinking water, the cross-flow filtration separates aromatic compounds and properties from the wine before alcohol is removed, after which water is added to the wine and blended with the wine concentrates that were filtered out.
The grape remains central
All these methods may have a helping hand in reducing alcohol content in a wine, and producers can get creative in the routes they take to give the wine the flavor and complexity it loses from the lack of alcohol. But the most important factor for creating a quality low- and no-alcohol wine starts essentially with the grape itself — like the Airén and Macabeo and Garnacha used to make Freixenet Mionetto Alcohol-Removed Premium Sparkling White and Rosé.
According to Ceola, picking the right grapes ensures that the wines fall in line with Freixenet’s standards, regardless of how much or little alcohol is in them. The choice to use sparkling wine for the company’s no-alcohol line also plays a role in the quality and taste, considering that the texture of the bubbles in sparkling wines can make up for any lost flavor.
“We chose to use grapes that are indigenous to Spain and are typically used to produce popular Spanish wine varietals, so you are still experiencing local grapes,” she says. “The bold flavors of Airén grapes are often balanced by the fresh and floral Macabeo in traditional wine production, and the grapes continue to work in harmony here. We also add Garnacha, another popular Spanish grape, to the rosé to achieve its pink hue and red berry notes.”
As more consumers look for drinking options better suited to their lifestyle choices, expect to see more no-alcohol wines lining retail shelves. With innovation and technology finding its place in the vineyards, winemakers are sure to create new ways to keep everyone satisfied.