Technically, the fastest-growing segment of the wine market doesn’t include wine. Sales of de-alcoholized wine, aka nonalcoholic wine, rose 43 percent in the first half of 2021, according to Nielsen, making it the second-fastest-growing category of wine last year. Many consumers clearly see these products as a way of reducing their caloric or alcohol intake. Do they satisfy serious wine drinkers, though?
In the 1980s, de-alcoholized wine or alcohol-removed wines, which must technically contain less than 0.5% alcohol by volume, were introduced to the market. They have had varying levels of success. J. Lohr introduced Ariel as a low-alcohol alternative to guests at Hyatt Hotels. These wines gained popularity quickly after winning a gold award at the 1986 Los Angeles County Fair, competing against alcohol-containing wines.
In the 1980s, Trinchero Family Estates in California launched Fre Alcohol-Removed Wines. Originally, it was called Sutter Home Fre. Roger Trinchero, noticing the popularity of nonalcoholic beers and the culture surrounding responsible driving, thought about nonalcoholic wine. Brie Wohld is the vice president of marketing at the brand. She says that there was only one product on the market. “[Trinchero] thought Sutter Home could offer consumers a choice.”
Both brands are experiencing strong growth today, and many newcomers have entered the category. Many nonalcoholic wine brands are marketing them in a similar way to the trend of “better for your health.”
Some have worked with celebrities to create projects. Miller Family Wine Company in California has released a new line of nonalcoholic wine as part of a collaboration with chef Cat Cora. Starla’s CEO, who is behind the new sparkling brand Starla, wanted to make it more Gucci-like than Sonoma. Wineries are introducing nonalcoholic options to their existing lines. These include producers such as Waterbrook from Washington, Giesen from New Zealand, and Wolffer of Long Island, New York.
The category is still small. IRI reports that in the six months ending October 3, 2021, retail outlets sold about 88,000 cases. Trinchero accounted for more than 82 percent of the market by selling 72,600 Fre points. Ariel was the second-largest brand, accounting for 6 percent of all sales with 6,500 traded points. Some of the other leading brands are St. Regis from Germany, Freixenet in Spain, Waterbrook, Giesen, and Gruvi.
The pandemic presented a great opportunity for growth, even though overall sales were small. Jeff Meier is the COO and President of California’s J. Lohr Vineyards, which owns Ariel Vineyards. He said that 2020 saw Ariel’s most significant sales growth in years. The change began when shelter-in-place orders were sent out. Sales grew by 30 percent over the entire calendar year. This growth will continue in 2021, with sales up by 35 percent until May 31.
Wohld says that Fre also experienced similar success in the wake of the pandemic. Sales were up by 30 to 40% over the last year. The Fre portfolio includes nine labels, including sparklers and whites, as well as rose and reds. All are non-vintage, and the sparkling whites and roses come in single-serve bottles. Trinchero has recently released a separate Luminara bottle, a vintage-dated Napa Valley Wine that they hope will attract the attention of consumers looking for a high-quality, non-alcohol alternative.
De-alcoholized wines are a great option for those who want to reduce their alcohol consumption. A glass of red wine weighing 5 ounces contains 12 to 15 percent by volume alcohol and 125 calories. De-alcoholized 5-ounce glasses of red wine have 0.5 percent by volume alcohol and 30 to 35 calories. They still retain polyphenols such as resveratrol, which may be beneficial.
“Thinking is expanding.” Wohl said that even two or three years ago, there were two distinct segments: Wine consumers who couldn’t drink for a while and Baby Boomer consumers, who loved the ritual of drinking wine but wanted to reduce their consumption. In the past two years, we’ve seen a sober movement and the straight, curious, mainly younger consumers who have made alcohol-free decisions. They have a different view of what it is to lead a healthy life.
How to remove alcohol from wine
After fermentation, de-alcoholized wines are produced in three different ways: by vacuum distillation (spinning-cone technology), reverse osmosis, or spinning-cone.
The vacuum distillation process raises the temperature to between 75deg F and 85deg F and then passes the wine over a column of distillation. The volatile compounds, which are responsible for many of the aromas in wine, separate from the wine at this low temperature via evaporation. Some of the volatile compounds are collected to be used later. After a second pass, the alcohol is removed. The aroma compounds composed are then blended into the de-alcoholized wines. Vacuum distillation is a common method to de-alcoholize wines. However, the aromas are usually lost.
The vacuum distillation technique is refined by spinning-cone technology. The evaporation process is repeated several times at low temperatures. Inverted rotating cones create centrifugal force that produces a thin layer of wine. This allows producers to quickly and efficiently separate the components: aromatics and alcohol. The aroma compounds are then added to the de-alcoholized, alcohol-free wine after the alcohol has been removed.
Reverse osmosis separates components by molecular size. The alcohol is filtered and discarded. Aromatic compounds and other flavor components are retained. A volume of water equivalent to the amount of alcohol removed is then blended back into de-alcoholized wines. This level of Molecular Filtration does not increase the temperature of the wine, which is one benefit that helps reverse osmosis wines retain their varietal characteristics and winelike structure.
Alcohol is what often makes the aromas in de-alcoholized wines, even though producers attempt to restore them. The smells are less likely to reach you if there is no alcohol. The process can also remove tannins. The tannins and alcohol give the wine its structure.
What does de-alcoholized Wine taste like?
I tasted about a dozen deal-alcoholized wines from Ariel, Fre, and other producers. The tasting was not blind. I would classify them as wine substitutes but as alternative beverages that have winelike components. Some of them seemed to be very sweet. Some of the wines with sweetness included flavors like candied fruits, fruit cocktails, or daiquiris.
They are allowed to use the additives that are restricted for winemaking because they are not classified as wine by U.S. authorities. On the back label, they must also include nutritional information. Waterbrook, for example, is one producer who freely admits that they use natural flavors to make up for the alcohol lost after alcohol removal.
The bubbles in the sparkling wine I tasted fell into two extremes. They were either small and lively or soft and creamy. Some of them were even softer than Prosecco.
Ariel Vineyards produced the most outstanding wines. The Cabernet Sauvignon 2020 and Chardonnay 2020 were both balanced and had varietal-specific flavors and aromas. The Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon were not big and bold, and their finish was a bit lacking. However, the Chardonnay and Cabernet were fresh, which is what a wine enthusiast would expect.
The Chardonnay from Fre and the red blend of Fre are their best bottles. They were straightforward but had light fruit notes with secondary flavors or accents.
While serious wine drinkers might find the de-alcoholized version difficult to consume, wine companies are likely to continue working to improve and expand their product offerings. These wines are clearly appealing to a certain group of drinkers.