Reader mail: Non-alcoholic wine?

22 September 2009
By Tom Mansell

Got a wine- or science-related question? Email me at ithacork *at* gmail.com and I’ll do my best to answer it!

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A little while ago I got an email from a reader. She writes:

I came across your blog online…I’ll be visiting the Finger Lakes soon and I was wondering if you know of any wineries that produce/sell de-alcoholized wine? I gave up drinking last year (sound decision, I promise) but still love the taste of wine. Am trying to find new and interesting de-alcoholized wines when I travel.

Fre-wines

Here’s my response:

Thanks for reading the blog. I don’t know of any producers of de-alcoholized wines in the Finger Lakes, but I will ask around.

Do you drink a lot of de-alcoholized wine? I have had several alcohol-removed wines (in the name of science) and none of them really taste like wine to me. Alcohol actually does much for the body and especially the acid balance of wine. Alcohol-removed wine to me tastes extremely acidic.

Winemakers sensitive to those who choose not to drink alcohol can use glycerol or other agents to provide body and some even use capsaicin (from hot peppers) to replicate the “burn” of alcohol. Ariel Vineyards from California claims that its n/a wines have won gold medals against alcoholic wines. So maybe not all n/a wines are bad news.

For the Finger Lakes, though, might I suggest a compromise of spitting? I spit whenever I visit wineries, since I am usually the one driving my friends around. Spitting would give you the tasting experience and the opportunity to talk with the tasting room staff without taking in that much alcohol. Also people who spit really look like professionals, because most pros spit!

Failing that, i do know many wineries carry juice made from wine grapes.

Looking back on this advice, I’m not sure that recommending spitting was such a good idea. No matter this person’s reasons for avoiding alcohol (medical, psychological, financial, religious, or anything else), I’m not sure that the answer is bringing her into closer contact with alcoholic wine. Indeed, for those of you who do spit, alcohol CAN get into your system without you swallowing a drop. It can traverse mucous membranes contributing to some absorption into the bloodstream. Various estimates exist but some numbers that I saw estimate that 3% of the alcohol in a drink is absorbed through the mouth (questionable Ref: Wine Business Monthly). So after a full day of wine tasting, spitting only, you could still end up having the equivalent of a drink or two. Of course, that doesn’t count those wines that are so rich and delicious that you’re just compelled to gulp them down.

What do you guys think? Have you ever had a decent alcohol-removed
“wine”? Any advice for this reader?

Science!
Wine is a complex mixture of water (about 85-89%), alcohol (12-14%), organic acids like tartaric, malic, and lactic acid, sugar (sometimes), and volatile aroma compounds. If your goal is to remove alcohol from wine, you might think you could just boil it. Alcohol is more volatile than water, ergo boiling the wine will reduce the alcohol. The problem with that is that all of the aroma compounds in the wine are also volatile, so you would destroy the wine (not to mention the effect of heating the wine).

Alcohol can be removed from wines in many ways, but nowadays the most popular way is reverse osmosis. It’s a controversial topic in winemaking (see this article by PinotBlogger for some of the opposing viewpoints on alcohol removal), and I’m not really going to comment on the controversy, just the methodology.

Reverse osmosis involves high pressure, used to push the wine through a very stringent membrane filter. Only compounds whose molecular weight is smaller than 90 can pass through a tight RO filter. This includes water, ethanol, and the {volatile acidity} compounds ethyl acetate and acetic acid. Once these pass through the membrane, the alcohol and VA is removed by distillation and the water is returned to the wine. No water is added during the process. For a picture, see below.

This very simplistic diagram attempts to approximate the process of reverse osmosis on wine.

This very simplistic diagram attempts to approximate the process of reverse osmosis on wine.

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4 Responses to Reader mail: Non-alcoholic wine?

  1. Michael Gorton, Jr. on 22 September 2009 at 8:16 pm

    Interesting concept and idea. Have you tasted these “free” wines, and if so, what are your thoughts. I have never had one.

    I wonder what is the cost factor, I am sure this could be expensive for the winery.

    Personally, I think that this will alter the taste totally, like decaf, and non-alcoholic beer. The alcohol is need and sometimes a key element in the wine. Right?

  2. Tom Mansell on 22 September 2009 at 11:00 pm

    I have tasted some for class, and they are horribly acidic. Alcohol is absolutely a key element. I’m not saying that all alcohol-removed wines are bad, but all of the ones that I have had are revolting.

    As for the cost, I believe many wineries hire people that will roll up with the machine in tow, do all the wine right from the barrel, and then leave.

  3. Filter « Ithacork on 24 September 2009 at 4:22 pm

    [...] to be trapped, even by a sterile 0.45-micron filter. (For comparison with the other day’s post about reverse osmosis, those filters are on the order of 0.005 microns, about 100x smaller pores). So theoretically all [...]

  4. Unfiltered critique « Ithacork on 24 September 2009 at 4:23 pm

    [...] to be trapped, even by a sterile 0.45-micron filter. (For comparison with the other day’s post about reverse osmosis, those filters are on the order of 0.005 microns, about 100x smaller pores). So theoretically all [...]

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