Devil's Advocate: Is Zero-Alcohol Wine, 'Wine'? And Why Does it Matter?

There are moves to bring dealcoholised wine into the same legislation as conventional wine, and big brand owners are introducing zero-alc versions of their existing ones. Robert Joseph wonders if this is wise for the wine sector in general.

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Robert Joseph - the Devil's Advocate
Robert Joseph - the Devil's Advocate

Anyone who has followed even a sample of what I have written over the years will be familiar with my enthusiasm for questioning the status quo. There are few cages I haven’t felt tempted to rattle, or statues whose feet I haven’t wanted to analyse for the presence of clay.


When it comes to dealcoholised wine, should things stay as they are?

Today, however, after two conference sessions in Milan (at the SIMEI equipment exhibition) and Amsterdam (WBWE bulk wine far), I find myself at least partly on the side of the way things are when it comes to dealcoholised wine.

I say ‘partly’, because there’s no way that I could support the lunatic approach of the legislation that bans the production of low- and no-alcohol wine in Italy, despite the fact that neighbouring German, Spanish and French companies are legally making large volumes of it. Often with the help of highly sophisticated Italian equipment.

I owe this knowledge to Chiara Menchini a lawyer working for the Unione Italiana Vini, the organisation that runs the SIMEI event as well as publishing a bi-weekly publication called Il Corriere Vinicolo. However, I was less convinced by the argument from other members of the panel that, once they are allowed, low-and no-alcohol wines should be brought under the same legislation as conventional wine. The reasoning behind this is that, otherwise, the situation will be anarchic.

A few days later Gerard Kenneth Higgins of Pernod Ricard in Scandinavia told a WBWE audience that a growing number of big brands now offer dealcoholised wine in that region, and that 20% of the Jacobs Creek sold in Sweden now has no alcohol. Higgins said that, while the labels of zero alcohol wine can mention the grape variety, any reference to a region is forbidden. In his view, this is a pity.

And that’s where we part company. I like the EU definition of wine as being exclusively produced from freshly harvested grapes. So, adding fruit flavours to fermented grape juice is fine, but the result is a wine-based beverage, not a wine. And I’m not sure the same shouldn’t be true of bourbon-barrel-aged wine, even though the flavour of the spirit has been delivered by the barrel rather than any direct addition.

Complicated regulations

By the same token, the process of removing alcohol from wine - however it is done - turns the original product into a very different drink even if the quality and flavour are rapidly improving from what to me was their mostly barely drinkable level of a few years ago. 

The wine category is already horribly complicated and, while I can see the commercial imperative for companies like Pernod Ricard to use their brands to fill a growing market niche, I’m dubious about adding further confusion for the poor consumer. 

The implications are quite far ranging. Zero-alcohol examples of familiar brands may be on a separate shelf in a Nordic monopoly store, but they can presumably be sold anywhere in markets where alcohol is forbidden, as well as in New York supermarkets that are subject too similar restrictions. And, of course, they aren’t subject to the US three-tier-system. 

Questioning the status quo

This matters at a time when younger consumers in the USA and elsewhere are already losing a taste for what most of us would call wine. Zero-alcohol Jacobs Creek may be a way into the ‘real thing', but it may also be a dead end where many are happy to remain. I’m all for letting people eat and drink whatever they enjoy, but I also care about the wine sector.

It’s at this point that I’m reminded that, like the big retailers where most wine is sold, giant corporations like Pernod Ricard and Constellation are not specifically in the wine business. They deal in beverages, and if the world wants spirits or zero-alcohol Cabernet, that’s what they’ll deliver. 

In other words, they’re just as ready to question the status quo as I am, for very different reasons. And they have the muscle to change it.




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