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A Guide to Alcohol-Free Wines and How They’re Made

A Guide to Alcohol-Free Wines and How They’re Made

alcohol-free wines

Non-alcoholic, dealcoholized, NOLO, or alcohol-removed: there are numerous terms to choose from when it comes to alcohol-free wines, with few distinctions. Like many trending phrases, particularly in wine, they can mean many things, with no guiding regulations to help.

While becoming more notable on shelves over the past five years, particularly during popular stints like Sober October and Dry January, wine without alcohol has existed for over 150 years. In fact, until 1890, Welch’s Grape Juice went by the name “Dr. Welch’s Unfermented Wine.” Of course, this wasn’t wine at all.

Many attempts were made over the last century to make alcohol-free wines, but the results were often cast off as poor approximations of the real thing. However, as consumer interest began increasing, so did the quality, as investments in improving processes and ingredients allowed for better outcomes.

With origin and winemaking transparency at an all-time high and increasingly important for consumers, understanding the differences between terms to make the right buying decision becomes crucial. Like everything in wine, it all comes down to the label.

Low vs. No: A Spectrum of Alcohol-Free Wines

The non-alcoholic (NA) movement includes wines that never had alcohol (aka proxy wines) to wines that fall into the “low alcohol” category. Low-alcohol wine means the wine has less than 11% alcohol by volume (ABV). For context, most wines on the shelf are usually between 11% and 15% ABV. 

Typically, most low-alcohol wines are white wines. Making a low-alcohol red wine is possible but challenging as the grape skins need more time to ripen, which gives the structure and tannins during red wine production and fermentation. Longer hang time means more sugar, yielding a higher ABV. 

Winemakers in particularly cold climates, where grapes struggle to ripen, can produce low-alcohol wines fairly easily. For example, Riesling from the Mosel in Germany can be between 7% and 9% ABV. Regions can also intentionally produce low-alcohol wines via partial fermentation, such as Moscato d’Asti, which can be as low as 5% ABV.

On the other end of the spectrum are proxy wines. Like the Welch’s example, proxy wines may use wine grapes, grape juice, or completely alternative ingredients. But, they never go through fermentation, so sugars never convert into alcohol, meaning the wines are truly 0% ABV. Recent examples, like Proxies, are trying to own this category and seeing great success by partnering with prominent sommeliers like Andre Mack.  

In the middle of the spectrum is where complications arise. Dealcoholized wines begin by going through traditional wine fermentation but then proceed to a distillation process to remove the alcohol. The result is a wine with less than 0.5% ABV. Up-and-coming NA wine companies like Giesen or Fre (owned by Sutter Home) only produce dealcoholized wine. 

How Dealcoholized Wines Are Made

There are three primary methods to produce dealcoholized wine. The first is through a vacuum distillation process. Winemakers heat the wine in a vacuum to around 35°C (95°F), high enough to evaporate alcohol but not so high that it cooks the wine. After the alcohol evaporates, the wine cools and goes into bottles. This method was invented by Carl Jung (not the psychologist) in the early 1900s.

The second method is reverse osmosis, where wine goes through a filter to remove components from the wine, including alcohol. The alcohol is then distilled, like the first method, and the remaining elements combine back into the wine. Food chemist and entrepreneur Andrew Craig originally developed this concept before being popularized for wine by marketer Tony Dann.

The last method is the most complex: spinning cone columns, where the wine passes down a vertical series of spinning cones. As the liquid goes down, the spinning motion separates the liquid from the different components, including alcohol. The alcohol remains separated, and the other desired components integrate into the wine. Newer non-alcoholic wine brands use this technology because it does not require heating the wine.

Are Alcohol-Free Wines, Wine?

While this question is up for debate, it depends on the type of NA wine. Many proxy wines never use wine grapes (or any grape) and don’t claim to be wine. They are a wine alternative.

Conversely, dealcoholized wines ferment like traditional wines, with one additional step: removing the alcohol. Several wine types similarly manipulate specific steps in the winemaking process for a desired effect, like sparkling, fortified, and ripasso wine. Considering this comparison, it’s reasonable to believe dealcoholized wine to be wine. That said, consumers should be mindful to understand NA winemaking processes and decide from there.

Finding the Right NA Wine

Here are a few things to consider before purchasing alcohol-free wines:

  • Process: With luck, a quick Google search of the brand will reveal the wine’s winemaking process and ingredients. 
  • Alcohol level: Most NA wines have at least trace amounts of alcohol. Consumers looking for entirely alcohol-free wines should consider proxy wines or other wine alternatives.
  • Sweetness: Since all of these wines are lower in alcohol, there is the potential for the wine to be sweeter. Without the fermentation, the wine keeps the sugar that would have been converted to alcohol. Additionally, wines using ingredients other than grapes or adding grape juice at the end may have high sugar content. 
  • Personal taste: These different processes come with different flavor profiles. Some are trying to replicate the taste of wine. Others are trying to be something enjoyable but altogether different than wine. Knowing the difference will make for a positive experience. 

Popular Brands

  • Proxies is a proxy wine company making wine alternatives.
  • Giesen is a dealcoholized wine company with several expressions such as Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Pinot Grigio, and a Sparkling Brut.
  • Thomson & Scott Noughty is a dealcoholized wine company specializing in wine blends.
  • Töst is a wine alternative company producing wines from white tea, ginger and other fruits.
  • Fre is a dealcoholized wine company with several single varietal wines such as Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon. 

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