Low/No-Alcohol Wine: So much more than grape juice

Feb 22, 2021

Following several months of on-again-off-again bans on the sale and distribution of alcohol, due to coronavirus lockdown measures, many South African wine-lovers have found themselves having no choice but to explore alcohol-free, de-alcoholised and non-alcoholic alternatives to their favourite tipple.

Had these bans happened half a decade ago, desperate oenophiles would likely have had to scrape the bottom of the barrel for viable options. Fortunately, however, we find ourselves in a time where many South African wineries have expanded their ranges to include some truly top quality low-/no-alcohol products.

Despite this, there are still far more low-/no-alcohol wine sceptics than converts, with many viewing these products as nothing more than glorified grape juice.

In our latest Vinimark podcast episode, host Jono le Feuvre sits down with Pieter-Niel Rossouw, head winemaker at Darling Cellars and Anton Swarts, Cape Wine Master and senior winemaker at Spier, to delve a little deeper into the world of de-alcoholised and low-alcohol wines.

Both Rossouw and Swarts have hands-on experience of the processes behind making and developing these products, as Darling Cellars recently launched their DC De-Alcoholised range (including a Sauvignon Blanc, Shiraz and Rosé) and Spier their 5.5% Chenin Blanc and Shiraz.

Firstly, it’s important to note that there are very clear distinctions between low-alcohol, de-alcoholised and non-alcoholic wines.

Rossouw explains it as follows: low-alcohol wine is any wine product with an alcohol percentage below 4.5%, de-alcoholised wines need to be below 0.5% and alcohol-free, below 0.05%.

Keeping up with the times and trends

Reflecting on the factors that drove the development of Darling Cellars’ de-alcoholised product, Rossouw says: “Consumers today are looking for something lighter, something healthier to drink.”

“There are a lot of people who want to enjoy wine, but for some reason can’t consume alcohol – whether medical or other.”

With a growing interest in health and wellness among consumers across the globe, it’s hardly surprising that many South Africans are also seeking to lower their alcohol intake by swapping out a few glasses of wine per week for a similarly enjoyable low-/no-alcohol alternative.

Add to this the imminent passing of a new bill that sets the legal blood alcohol level for drivers on South African roads at 0% (a significant decrease from the current 0.05%), and you have a whole segment of the wine-drinking market to satisfy.

“People want to enjoy a glass of wine with their food at a restaurant or while socialising with friends, but with the new laws that’s not going to be possible,” says Rossouw. “With our de-alcoholised Sauvignon Blanc, Shiraz and Rosé they can still enjoy the experience of enjoying a glass of wine without the risk.”

In terms of Spier’s decision to develop a wine with a 5.5% alcohol wine, Swarts says that it was largely inspired by a growing number of requests for lower-alcohol wines from overseas customers.

They started performing benchmark tastings of low-alcohol wines from various parts of the world, including Germany, Spain, Italy and the USA and eventually found their “sweet spot” at 5.5%.

“At 5.5% you get the added benefit of having 50% lower alcohol than one of our normal wines and 50% fewer kilojoules. So, health-wise it sounds better,” he says. “But you also have the kick of you drinking real wine.”

It starts with good wine

One of the common misconceptions around de-alcoholised/low-alcohol wines is that they are of a lesser quality.

“With de-alcoholised wine, the most important part of the production is to start with a good wine,” says Rossouw. “You can’t start with a mediocre or bad wine, because when you reduce the alcohol, you will enhance the good components, but you will also enhance the bad components.”

At Darling Cellars, their Reserve Wines are used as the base for the DC De-Alcoholised range. A lot of research, time and energy goes into selecting only wines that have a solid structure and substance for the de-alcoholising process.

Adding to this, Swarts points out that it’s important to note that – as with any other wine – the making of de-alcoholised and low-alcohol wines starts in the vineyard.

“With our 5.5% wines, we spent two years on research and development, which included going to specific sites, specific blocks that had lighter, sandy soil to produce wines with less acidity and lower alcohol,” he says. “Then, of course, there are factors like clonal selection and canopy management to create balance in the vineyard and the wines.”

The de-alcoholising process

Although de-alcoholised and no-alcohol wines are enjoying a trendy uptick, these types of products are by no means ‘new’.

In various parts of the world, wineries have not only been experimenting with the production of de-alcoholised wines, but actually becoming specialists in the field.

This wealth of knowledge has been hugely beneficial to Darling Cellars with their foray into de-alcoholised wine-making.

There currently exist a number of different methods for the removal of alcohol from the wine, including reverse osmosis and lowering alcohol through the addition of grape juice.

However, Rossouw and his team’s research led them to the spinning cone technique, which they have found to be fast and efficient in the production of good quality de-alcoholised wines.

In easy terms, the spinning cone makes use of centrifugal force to create a vacuum that removes alcohol and other volatile components from the wine.

Later on, certain components – such as flavour – are retrieved and used to rebuild the wine without the alcohol.

What gets lost in the process?

With alcohol really being such a central component in the production, preservation and enjoyment of wine, one cannot help but wonder what gets lost in the process of lowering alcohol percentages or de-alcoholising altogether.

“Alcohol is the glue that keeps a wine together,” says Swarts. “As soon as you remove alcohol, you lose viscosity, body, aroma and tannin structure in the wine. And that also influences your flavour profile, your astringency and your sourness and your sweetness. For me it keeps a wine together and you need a little bit of alcohol in your wine to make it palatable.”

Apart from this, alcohol’s role as preservative is a simple, but important one in the winemaking process.

“That’s one of the more nerve-wracking aspects of creating de-alcoholised wines,” says Rossouw. “Suddenly you have a product that doesn’t have alcohol to preserve it. So, you have to work fast with it to make sure that it’s healthy, it’s clean and put in the bottle under safe conditions.”

A mindset change

Despite these challenges, both winemakers are positive about the technological advances being made in the field of low-/no-alcohol winemaking both locally and abroad.

Rossouw believes that the South African wine industry is only at the very beginning of an exciting new chapter with the making of de-alcoholised wines.

“As a winemaker, you’ll always be a die-hard wine drinker,” he says. “But you have to adapt. If you’re not going to adapt to the industry or the world, you’re going to be left behind.”

Echoing this, Swarts points out that it will require a perspective shift for serious wine drinkers to appreciate de-alcoholised/low-alcohol products fully.

“When you’re tasting de-alcoholised and low-alcohol wine, you need to wear another hat,” he says. “If you’re a serious wine drinker or a Cape Wine Master or a head winemaker or a cellarmaster, you will need to change your mindset about drinking wines with lower alcohol percentages.”

Fortunately, as Le Feuvre points out in his conclusion to the episode, it’s hardly a case of ‘either-or’. In many ways, de-alcoholised/low-alcohol wines bring a welcome expansion to the wine industry, pushing innovation and challenging long-held stereotypes.

For more information on COVID-19, visit www.sacoronavirus.co.za

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