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Is dealcoholised wine ‘appalling’? The industry responds…

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the drinks business has had a strong response to one producer’s negative comment piece on dealcoholised wines. Here, Robert Joseph, Amanda Thomson and Dan Harwood respond.

Robert Joseph, The Wine Thinker

It is always harder to have a discussion with someone whose identity you don’t know, but I’m sure that ‘Jama L’ has good reasons for wishing to remain anonyomous.

However, there are assertions in his/her letter that are plainly inaccurate, and surprising coming from someone who says they have been “studying the possibility of producing a dealcoholised wine… for several months. I am similarly surprised by the thought that a forum at the ISVV, the Bordeaux oenology institute did not set them straight.

So, as someone who has worked for some time on producing a palatable zero-alcohol wine-based drink – le Grand Noir 0.0 which we are launching in July – and on behalf of many others who are attempting to achieve the same objective, I would like to respond individually to the points ‘Jama L’ makes.

1) The process of dealcoholisation leaves wines that require the addition of natural flavours

This is not absolutely true. Some producers make no such additions, but we have chosen to do so. The natural flavours we have used (and indicate on the obligatory ingredient listing) are, as ‘Jama L’ acknowledges, no different to ones used in beer and a range of very popular alcoholic beverages that are daily enjoyed by wine producers. I agree that they should not be permitted in wine, but I see no reason why they should be banned from non-alcoholic wine-based beverages.

2) That it involves considerable energy consumption and is thus environmentally deleterious and that makers of dealcoholized wines will “never be able to match the environmental commitment required of real wine producers.

The energy required is undeniable – as is the energy required to make any wine. However the environmental cost is more debatable. BevZero, the company with whom we are working, gets 83% of its energy from its own renewable sources. This percentage will grow. We are looking the reduce our carbon footprint at the winery. A carbon-neutral, dealcoholized wine is entirely conceivable.

3) That “it would certainly be necessary to design wines specifically for dealcoholisation.” Yes, we have, indeed, learned that one has to select the wines for dealcoholisation carefully.

They need to be very well balanced, and some grape varieties work better than others. For the white, we are using Grenache Blanc and Chardonnay while the red is a blend of Grenache Noir and Pinot Noir. These wines – from the same vineyards as the classic le Grand Noir we produce – are every bit as commercial as those wines.

4) That dealcoholised wine requires the addition of “at least 40g of sugar per litre.”

This is nonsense. I agree that most zero-alcohol wines are far too sweet – at the 20-35g/l RS they contain. But many are far less sweet. ‘Jama L’ should try Clos de Bouard’s Prince Oscar, produced in Bordeaux by a member of the family that owns Chateau Angelus. It has 16g/l.

Another good example, Zeno, has 18 g/l. Our le Grand Noir has less than 13g/l.

5) The final product will have a very high production cost.

This is undeniable. But so does many wines and spirits. What matters is whether consumers like what we have done sufficiently to cover that cost and a sustainable margin that allows us to continue to produce it. It is also incidentally worth noting that in many countries, NA products are cheaper than the acohol equivalent, because they are not subject to excise duty.

6) Between 15 and 20% and residues that have to be recycled.

Yes, that residue is called ‘very high quality alcohol’ – the stuff that is routinely produced from the excess production of the French wine industry. It is generally used for fortification or the production of spirits. The Giesen winery in New Zealand – makers of a highly successful zero-alcohol Sauvignon Blanc, uses theirs to make a very palatable gin.

7) That it will need pasteurisation over “several tens of minutes.”

Flash pasteurisation takes seconds. I would not pasteurise conventional wine myself, but one of Portugal’s biggest exporters and winner of hundreds of competition awards flash pasteurises over 10m bottles of its wines per year. Louis Latour used to do the same for all its Burgundies.

The proof lies in the consumer-appeal of the final product.

Producers who prefer not to flash pasteurise can use Dimethyl dicarbonate (DMDC) which is approved for soft drinks, ice teas and flavoured water in the EU and US.

8) That “Dealcoholised wine will therefore never be the equivalent of a good wine from which the alcohol has been removed.”

This is true. But that’s not its ambition any more than decaffeinated coffee seeks to be the ‘equivalent’ of a top class brew with caffeine. Zero-alc wine-based drinks are not competing with wine. They are competing with water, Coke and fruit juice.

Until now, it is true that dealcoholized wines have been far less successful than decaffeinated coffee and dealcoholized beer. A big reason for this is that the coffee and beer manufacturers have spent millions of dollars learning how to do it. The wine industry has made a fraction of this effort.

9) That people should not want to “not consume directly a drink that has never had anything to do with the production of alcohol.”

There are those – and not only vegetarians – who believe that people shouldn’t ‘want’ to eat a Big Mac. And I’m sure there are carnivores who feel similarly about the plant-burgers now offered by McDonalds and Burger King. Would ‘Jama L’ ban either or both? And would s/he outlaw dealcoholised beer?

Underlying this whole argument seems to be the belief that wine is a sacred product that should not be mucked around with. I am a regular attendee at the World Bulk Wine Exhibition in Amsterdam where I see the kind of Spanish wine that France imports in huge volumes, at a price of under €0.40/litre. It is surprisingly drinkable, but there is nothing sacred about it. Most of it is sold to French consumers as Vin de la Communauté européenne, but some will be used for the fruit-flavoured wines that are still very popular in France.

Should people be adding fruit flavour to wine? Or making Sangria or Kir cocktails? Should they be fortifying wine to make port and Vin Doux Naturel? Or adding sugar and yeast to make it fizz?

If this kind of ‘mucking about’ is permissible, why not dealcoholisation to create a beverage that will give pleasure to the consumer and profit to the producer?

Amanda Thomson, Thomson and Scott, Noughty AF wines

Dear the drinks business,

It was disheartening to read the comment piece in your most recent edition where the anonymous writer had decided that the idea of dealcoholised wine was an aberration.

Noughty has existed for only four years, and within that time we have managed to stretch our footprint far and wide across the UK, US, Canada and other wine markets.

The more we learn about how we take well crafted wine and how we best remove the alcohol while retaining vinous qualities, the more this sector of the wine industry will become part of the mainstream.

The majority of our customers are wine lovers. They enjoy wine throughout the week. But they recognise the importance of balance.

Incorporating well made elegant dealcoholised wine into the industry, helps boost the existing wine industry, allowing those that enjoy wine to switch seamlessly between alcoholic and non-alcoholic options.

It also helps the on-trade from losing consumers who are increasingly turning their backs on alcohol, not being able to find enough options to keep them in situ at venues across the country and leaving early. With their friends who would stay drinking alcohol – and often eating. This results in lost margin, not just from those not drinking but also from the rest of the table, subsequently losing wider group spend, across additional alcohol and food too, for everyone else around the table.

The points raised by your commentator regarding the ‘tricking up’ of alcohol is an important one. Noughty is made using organic grapes and produced in the most ethical ways possible to create the purist dealcoholised wine possible. The sugar content is also an important factor for us. We were determined from Day One to decrease the amount of unnecessary sugar in wine and have done so successfully.

This sector of the drinks industry is still very much in its infancy and it will only be with support, understanding and acceptance that it will grow in quality.

One only needs to look at the growth and success of the non-alcoholic beer industry to recognise the potential for the wine industry. Without these progressive attitudes and innovation, the wine industry will most certainly be left in the dust as future generations turn their back on the industry. It is clear from statistics provided by the WHO and various governments around the world, that young people are far less interested in drinking alcohol. But wine making is the livelihood for millions of workers across the globe. It is essential that we continue to find ways to support their businesses. Not hide behind anonymous negative polemics.

Regardless of such negative attitude, it is inevitable that this will become part of our everyday lifestyle choices whether the wine industry likes it or not.
We were not in attendance at the event that was mentioned, but it sounds as though many there may not have understood the wider implications of alcohol’s impact on society, our health and necessary industry innovation.

Change does not happen overnight and until now, there have been next to no quality alcoholised wines on the market to make a case for its presence in the mainstream. But that is changing. And affordably, and sustainably. We believe that Noughty is leading the way in making impactful changes. We are now served at Michelin star restaurants by countless Chefs and Sommeliers who understand and embrace the importance of this innovation. We are B Corp certified. And we are sold successfully in the best retail and most important wine merchants in the UK. And this is also growing at a rapid pace across the US and Canada.

This is not a trend. This is a lifestyle choice that is being adopted by more and more consumers year-on-year. So the facts speak for themselves. It’s up to the wine industry to start working out how it can better produce high quality dealcoholised wine alongside its alcoholic cousins.

It’s only narrow-mindedness and a refusal to accept change that holds industries back.

Let’s hope that this comment is an isolated case of sour grapes.

Dan Harwood, managing director, SW Wines UK

Don’t sneer at alcohol free wine – moderation is here to stay and it’s our duty as an industry to make the best quality drinks for everyone

Working in the alcohol free wine sector, sadly I’m used to people looking down on the drinks we produce. That’s why I would like to respond to the anonymous article ‘The idea of dealcoholised wine is appalling’ (Drinks Business May 17). Many of the points raised by the poster Jama L are misguided and, in some cases, plain inaccurate.

Having worked with Eisberg Alcohol Free Wine for almost 10 years and having studied with the Institute of Masters of Wine, I can tell you that there is no reason why passion for the World’s wide array of wine can not also include alcohol free.

We know what good wine looks and tastes like. It is foolish to think that some of the biggest wine companies globally who produce wine with and without alcohol with decades of experience, do so without care and expertise.

The comment talked about the essential use of added aromas and addition of 40g/L of sugar. While some easy drinking, large volume alcohol free wines do have added natural aroma and grape must, more premium alcohol free wines like Eisberg Selection are not aromatised and have a residual sugar well below 40g/L.

The statement that pasteurisation is essential and the only option is also nonsense. While microbial stability is vital for alcohol free, it is also the case for wines with alcohol and so it’s disingenuous to point the finger at alcohol free production as somehow being responsible for ‘tainting’ a natural product, or as the comment said ‘destroying an ancestral art’.

Eisberg do not pasteurise the wines we produce, as I am sure is the case for many other leading alcohol free wines.

The idea of thinking about de-alcoholisation as abhorrent and sacrilegious is outdated and narrow minded.

Many wines with alcohol use processing aids and are adjusted to tweak acidity and residual sweetness of the final wine.

The use of sugar to enrich the alcohol of wine, as well as de-alcoholise in warmer years, are common and permitted within the regulations of many Geographical Indications throughout Europe and the wider world.

When it comes to environmental credentials, we invest in having the latest efficient equipment, heat exchangers and renewable energy sources to offset as much as possible. Just like many environmentally conscious producers across the wine sector.

I understand the commentator is emboldened to speak up, wine is of course an emotional drink for both the producer and the consumer, but why should those looking to moderate miss out?

Alcohol free wine does not set out to detract wine lovers from their favourites, but rather to expand the choice given to them and offer a wine for every occasion, even through moderation.

I know wine stirs emotion and passion like no other drink can, it’s one of the reasons I choose to work in the sector and love it so much. The ever increasing number of people who choose to moderate should get to feel that passion too.

I’ve been in the sector long enough to see the evolution of 0% wine and to be very excited about where it goes next.

I hope ‘Jama L’ can further their education in alcohol free wine reproduction and give them another chance.

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