One of the fastest-growing segments in the wine market isn't actually wine, at least, not technically. Sales of de-alcoholized wine, aka non-alcoholic wine, rose 43 percent in the first half of 2021, according to Nielsen, making it the second-fastest-growing category of wine last year. Clearly many consumers see these products as a way to moderate their alcohol consumption or caloric intake. But do they offer satisfaction for serious wine drinkers?
De-alcoholized or alcohol-removed wine, which technically must contain less than 0.5 percent alcohol by volume, first appeared in the marketplace in the 1980s, with varying degrees of success over the years. One of the first brands, Ariel, was introduced by J. Lohr as a low-alcohol alternative for guests of Hyatt Hotels. The wines quickly gained in popularity after receiving a gold medal at the 1986 Los Angeles County Fair while competing against wines with alcohol.
Fre Alcohol-Removed Wines, owned by California's Trinchero Family Estates, was also launched in the 1980s. It was originally labeled as Sutter Home Fre. "Roger Trinchero saw the success of non-alcoholic beer and the cultural movement around responsible driving, and thought about non-alcoholic wine. There was only one other product in the market at the time," according to Brie Wohld, vice president of marketing for the brand. "[Trinchero] felt Sutter Home could give consumers a choice."
Today, both those brands are enjoying strong growth and a slew of newcomers to the category have debuted. Many are marketing their non-alcoholic wines similarly to those of the "better for you" wine trend.
Some have partnered with celebrities on projects. California's Miller Family Wine Company has just released a line of non-alcoholic wines in a project with chef Cat Cora. The CEO of Starla, a new sparkling brand, said she wanted it to be more Gucci than Sonoma. Many are being introduced by wineries interested in adding a non-alcoholic option to their extensive lines, including producers like Waterbrook in Washington, Giesen in New Zealand and Wölffer from New York’s Long Island
But the category remains small. In the six months ending Oct. 3, 2021, according to IRI, about 88,000 cases were sold in retail outlets. Trinchero sold 72,600 cases of Fre, representing more than 82 percent of the market. Ariel, the next-largest player, accounted for about 6 percent of sales, with 6,500 cases sold. Other leading brands include Germany's St. Regis, Spain's Freixenet, Waterbrook, Giesen and Gruvi.
But while overall sales are small, the pandemic represented a growth opportunity. "2020 saw the most growth in Ariel's sales in many years," said Jeff Meier, COO and president for California's J. Lohr, owner of Ariel Vineyards. "The growth started when the shelter-in-place orders went out, and sales grew 30 percent for the full calendar year. That growth is continuing in 2021, with sales up 35 percent through May 31."
Fre has experienced similar success during the pandemic, with sales up 30 percent to 40 percent in the past year, says Wohld. Fre encompasses nine different labels of sparklers, whites, a rosé and reds, all non-vintage offerings, with the sparkling white and rosé also packaged as single-serve cans. And Trinchero recently launched a separate Luminara bottling, a vintage-dated Napa Valley wine that they hope will capture the attention of customers looking for a premium non-alcohol option.
For those trying to cut back on alcohol, de-alcoholized wine offer obvious benefits. A 5-ounce glass of red wine is typically 12 percent to 15 percent alcohol by volume and about 125 calories. A 5-ounce glass of de-alcoholized red wine is 0.5 percent alcohol by volume and about 30 to 35 calories, while still retaining potentially beneficial polyphenols like resveratrol.
"Thinking has really expanded. Even two to three years ago, it was two segments: wine consumers who can't drink temporarily, and then Baby Boomer consumers who enjoyed the ritual of wine but were trying to cut back," said Wohl. "In the last couple of years, [we've seen the] sober movement, the sober curious: largely younger consumers who have decided to make alcohol-free choices. [They have] a different idea of what it means to live a healthy lifestyle."
How do you remove alcohol from wine?
De-alcoholized wine is produced after fermentation in one of three ways: vacuum distillation, spinning-cone technology or reverse osmosis.
Vacuum distillation raises the temperature of the wine to between 75° and 85° F and passes the wine through a distillation column. At this relatively low temperature, volatile compounds—many of which give wine its aromas—separate from the wine via evaporation. Some are collected for later use. A second pass through the column removes the alcohol, after which any collected aroma compounds are blended back into the now de-alcoholized wine. De-alcoholized wines produced via vacuum distillation typically show a notable lack of aromatics, despite the attempt to save those compounds.
Spinning-cone technology refines the vacuum distillation method. Multiple rounds of low-temperature evaporation take place. Rotating, inverted cones produce centrifugal forces that create an extremely thin film of wine from which producers can quickly and efficiently extract component parts: aromatics, then alcohol. After the alcohol is removed, the aroma compounds are reintroduced into the now de-alcoholized wine.
Reverse osmosis filters wine at a molecular level, separating components based on molecular size. Alcohol is filtered out and discarded, aromatics and other flavor compounds are retained and a volume of water equal to the alcohol removed is blended back into the de-alcoholized wine. Molecular filtration at this level does not require increasing the wine's temperature, one of the primary benefits that helps wines de-alcoholized by reverse osmosis retain greater varietal character and wine-like structure.
While producers try to restore aromatic compounds to de-alcoholized wine, the alcohol is often what makes these aromas volatile. No alcohol means it's harder for the smells to reach your nose. And the process can also remove tannins. Alcohol and tannins give wine a lot of its structure.
How does de-alcoholized wine taste?
I sampled roughly a dozen de-alcoholized wines, from Ariel, Fre and other producers. The tasting was non-blind. As a group, I would describe them more as alternative beverages with wine-like elements rather than wine substitutes. Several seemed notably sweet. The wines that showed some sweetness often included candied fruit, fruit cocktail or even daiquiri-like flavors.
Because these are not officially categorized as wine by the U.S. government, they are allowed to use additives restricted in typical winemaking. They also need to put nutritional labels on their back labels. Some producers, like Waterbrook, freely admit they add various natural flavorings to compensate for what is lost when alcohol is removed.
Among the sparkling wines I tried, the texture of the bubbles seemed to be one of two extremes: small and aggressively lively on the palate or extremely soft and creamy, softer even than most Proseccos.
Far and away the best of the wines tasted were from Ariel Vineyards. Both the Chardonnay 2020 and the Cabernet Sauvignon 2020 were balanced, with varietal-specific aromas and flavors. Neither were big, bold examples, and they were somewhat lacking on the finish, but the Chardonnay was fresh and the Cabernet lightly tannic—structural components a wine lover would expect from these varieties.
Following behind Ariel, the Chardonnay and the red blend from Fre were their best bottlings; they were quite straightforward, but offered light fruit notes with appropriate secondary flavors or accents.
Although serious wine drinkers may find de-alcoholized versions tough to swallow, consumer interest suggests that wine companies will continue to work to improve and expand these product offerings. They clearly hold appeal for a particular group of imbibers.