Non-Alcoholic Wines

Non-alcholic, you say? Isn't that just grape juice?

There is a small market for de-alcoholized wines. These are wines that are made as real wines and then have the alcohol removed, as distinct from grape juice and grape beverages, which were never wine to begin with and don't try to imitate real wine styles. In general I don't bother with them, but when my wife got pregnant, she insisted that I (mostly) abstain in some misguided show of solidarity. So I turn desperation into opportunity: let's see if these fake real wines are any good.

On Fake Real Wine

The "wines" reviewed in this page are all de-alcoholized wines; I exclude from the list sparkling and still grape juice, wine grape sodas, and other grape beverages that are not intended as imitation wine.

They technically aren't completely alcohol-free, but they have less than one half of one percent alcohol by volume, which is basically undetectable. You'd have to drink a gallon to even come close to getting the alcohol equivalent of a single glass of real wine.

This is a much smaller market than that for real wine. There are a few companies commonly available: Ariel, Fre (Sutter Home), Vandalia. As far as the origin of the grapes, I have never seen any that list an AVA or are AOC certified or anything like that. My guess is that it is because these aren't really wines (and definitely not traditional for Europe) and therefore legally can't actually list a place of origin. Ariel claims they source grapes from California (Napa cab, plus others from Sonoma, Paso Robles, Monterey, and the Delta), while Fre is a sub-brand of Sutter Home and claims to source from the same vineyards in California that Sutter Home does. Vandalia claims to be strictly Napa Valley.

How does it stack up to real wine? Well, the red suffers the most, as the heat of the alcohol is actually important to the flavors; the result feels a little empty and hollow. The white suffers a bit less but is still missing something essential, while the rose and sparkling styles seem to suffer the least as the extra sweetness hides the lack of alcohol. The sparkling is actually quite pleasant and drinkable as long as you don't compare it to real wine, as fizzy grape juice is eminently quaffable.

In general, I would not recommend them unless there were no other choice. It ain't the same.

How do they remove the alcohol?

There are two main methods for removing the alcohol from real wine.

The cold-filtration process (used by Ariel) basically uses a reverse osmosis unit to remove the water and alcohol from the wine, producing wine concentrate. Then water is added back in. This is similar to the reverse osmosis system your fancy water filter might use, except you keep the crud (which is the wine concentrate) and discard the purified water (and alcohol with it).

The spinning cone column uses a centrifuge and nitrogen gas to take the wine through several stages. First, the nitrogen is used to bind the volatile flavors and essences and separate them out. Next, the remainder is heated and run through the centrifuge again to remove the alcohol. Last, the volatile flavors and essences are added back in and the whole thing padded out with grape juice. The reason for the multistage process is so they can use heat to help remove the alcohol, by first separating out the volatile compounds that are easily damaged by heat.

Wine Comments

White Fre, Chardonnay 2009
13 February 2002 Grape, grapefruit, and apricot with a smooth mouthfeel. No wood. Not chardonnay-like, but quite drinkable.
$7/ bottle
White Ariel, Blanc NV
21 February 2011 Apricots with a slight hint of citrus. Almost pleasant.
$5 / bottle
Rose Fre, White Zinfandel 2009
23 February 2011 Watery grape and berry with mild grapeskins. Virtually no finish. Inoffensive like the original.
$7/ bottle
Red Ariel, Rouge NV
16 February 2011 Off dry and very soft, with plum and incense. Hint of sweetness mixed with astringency on the finish. The base wine might have been interesting, but alas.
$5/ bottle
Red Fre, Merlot 2009
13 February 2002 Fruity, with nearly absent tannins and a faint hint of wood. A little thin in the mouth. Soft to the point of sweetness.
$7/ bottle
St Regis, Reserve Brut NV
8 March 2011 Dry and fizzy, with prominent apple and light pears. Hint of yeast on the finish. Thin-bodied, like a dilute Apple Italian Soda.
$8/ bottle
Fre, Brut NV
27 February 2011 Peaches and apricots with a slight hint of yeast. Not dry. Closer to a mix of moscato and prosecco than champagne.
$7/ bottle