Low-alcohol wine is hardly a new phenomenon. But it’s only in the last couple of years that it has managed to appeal more widely to those cutting down on their drinking, playing significant catch-up to more established beer and spirit alternatives.
Part of the reason for wine’s late arrival to the mindful drinking party is that making no- and low-abv-wine is a rather challenging undertaking. Wine’s flavour begins with the fermentation of a single ingredient, grape juice – and is supported by a sizeable amount of alcohol (typically between 12% and 14.5%) as its by-product. A low-abv beer, on the other hand, starts off with half, or even a third, of wine’s ethanol content – meaning there is simply less to take away to make a lighter product. Furthermore, a low-abv beer’s flavour may be enhanced by large amounts of highly perfumed hops, while wine relies on grape juice as its sole ingredient.
Of course, another obstacle for winemakers has been the red tape. But last year, the European Union gave no- and low-abv wine its most promising endorsement yet, amending wine production rules across its member states. Once the new EU law comes into play in 2023, denominations will be free to integrate de-alcoholised wine into their own regulations (low-abv Chablis, anyone?). As such, wineries are now investing more time, capital and energy into what they can offer.
‘The innovation is coming from how producers approach things,’ says former wine buyer and co-founder of mindful consultancy Brimful Drinks, Christine Parkinson. ‘In the past, poor-quality wines blended from a variety of grapes and regions were often the source of de-alcoholised wines. We are beginning to see the use of good quality grapes from named varieties and terroirs, as well as use of ageing and sometimes oak.’
So, what techniques are more regularly being championed, are the winemaking principles broadly the same, and what is the result in the glass from each method of winemaking employed? We speak to makers at the forefront to find out more.
‘It’s important to start with a good base wine’
Vacuum distillation is perhaps the most popular technique employed to remove alcohol from wine. The distillation process – responsible for alcohol removal and also used in spirit-making – is carried out under reduced pressure, which significantly lowers ethanol’s boiling point. The lower temperature means that alcohol evaporates before all volatile compounds are boiled off, leaving a lower-abv wine whose flavours and aromas are closer to the original product.
The process is used to produce Thomson & Scott Noughty, an alcohol-free organic fizz made with Southern Spanish grapes; Vinada, a range of white and rosé bubblies of different origins (whose Crispy Chardonnay picked up a Gold medal at the IWSC 2021); and the recently launched still and sparkling Rieslings by leading Mosel winery, Dr Loosen.
‘It’s very important to start with a good base wine,’ says Vinada founder, Jessica Van Spaendonk, ‘a wine which is clean, aromatic and has the right complexity.’ Van Spaendonk also explains how it is crucial for the base wine to be low in acidity, because de-alcoholisation amplifies pH levels. Some producers respond by adding a touch of unfermented grape juice or other sources of sweetness to counterbalance the acidity, as well as give the wine extra weight and more mouthfeel.
Meanwhile, Dr Loosen prefers to halt the fermentation earlier, before all sugars have been converted into alcohol. Not only does this provide the wine with a little natural residual sugar, but also less alcohol content, meaning that its removal is a slightly less invasive process.
‘Aromatic is the key’
The spinning cone method is essentially a type of vacuum distillation that was developed to offer a gentler, less invasive process to lower a wine’s alcohol content. Of the few technologies available, spinning cone distillation is often regarded as the finest in retaining the liquid’s integrity. The wine is poured into a column under vacuum, where its alcohol is separated from other volatile components by means of rotating cones. Volatile compounds can then be blended back into the wine at a later stage, adding back in the aromas and flavour.
Duncan Shouler, who is chief winemaker at Marlborough’s Ara Wines, which is pioneering a non-alc Sauvignon Blanc, claims that in order for the process to be successful, starting with a very aromatic base wine is key. New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is a particularly apt candidate. ‘One of the greatest challenges [in making no-abv wine] is imparting good varietal aroma,’ he says. ‘By removing the alcohol, some of the flavour is always lost, and with that you lose some of the varietal typicity. We have learned to use our spinning cone technology in ways that allow us to capture that aroma and add it back to the product.’
Suffolk-based brewery, distillery and drinks manufacturer Adnams also resorts to spinning cone technology to produce its range of 0.5% abv wines: a Cabernet/Tempranillo red blend and a rosé Garnacha, both made at its partner winery in Spain. ‘Any flavour compounds taken from the wine during the process have the capability to be blended back in,’ explains head of wine Lydia Harrowven.
While Adnams employs the reverse osmosis process to make its beers, it opts out for its wines. ‘There are legal issues in some countries around adding water to wine, which is an essential part of the reverse osmosis process to reduce the abv to less than 0.5% abv, so this is a major stumbling block around using reverse osmosis for wine,’ says Adnams production director Fergus Fitzgerald.
‘The greatest challenge is balancing the sweetness’
While for most wine, alcohol by volume sits at upwards of 11%, some may fall naturally at a lower percentage should the fermentation process stop before all sugars have been turned into alcohol. However, this technique leaves noticeable amounts of residual sweetness in the liquid. As such, high acidity is crucial to making deliciously balanced yet naturally lower-alcohol wines.
At Michele Chiarlo winery in Piedmont, winemaker Stefano Chiarlo lets his Moscato d’Asti ferment up to 4.5% abv, then halts the process by cooling the wine. ‘Before bottling, we extract any further yeasts to avoid the risk of refermentation in the bottle,’ he says. ‘The greatest challenge in making a great Moscato d’Asti is having the right balance between sweetness and crispness. The finish should never be cloyingly sweet but rather leave the mouth fresh and quite dry.’
Leading Rheingau winery Schloss Johannisberg employs a similar process to vinify its 8% abv Riesling Spätlese Grünlack. ‘We stop the alcoholic fermentation by cooling down the [must],’ explains managing director Stefan Doktor. ‘The challenge is to harvest fully ripe grapes in excellent health conditions and with high levels of acidity.’
Meanwhile, in Marlborough, maverick winemaker John Forrest has been developing viticultural techniques specifically aimed at reducing the grapes’ ability to accumulate sugar – thus their capacity to produce alcohol once fermented – without affecting their aroma and flavour potential. The result is The Doctor’s range, a collection of wines – a Sauvingon Blanc, a Pinot Noir, a Riesling and a rosé blend (the former, a Silver medal winner at the IWSC 2021) – that clock in at 9.5% abv or less, yet taste just as enjoyable as the real deal.
‘In developing these wines we’ve gained a greater understanding of how it’s possible to further reduce a wine’s alcohol whilst retaining its typicity,’ says Forrest. ‘These wines proved increasing popular… the global appeal of lower-alcohol, high-quality wines appears wide open.’