Go to any bottle shop these days and you’re bound to be greeted by a respectable section devoted to non-alcoholic offerings. Beer has arguably pulled off the NA feat best, cracking the zero proof code and producing genuinely drinkable options that resemble real styles. The spirits realm is currently trying and, here and there, pulling off wins. But what of wine?
Making a good non-alcoholic wine was never going to be easy. It’s the beverage we tend to fuss over most, shrouded in ritual and tradition. That, and there’s a one-two punch of complexity and mouthfeel in good wine that’s very hard to hang onto after you remove the alcohol. Keep in mind that, while the technology is ever-improving, the act of rubbing the alcohol out of the wine is a highly interventionist move in an industry that usually champions, well, the opposite.
So when I received an email titled “The Quest for NA’s Best Grape Varietal,” I winced a little. Maybe it’s because I was raised on Pinot Noir and revere nuance. Maybe it’s because I’ve yet to taste a non-alcoholic wine that I liked enough to seek out after the bottle was gone (or poured down the drain). But craft beer didn’t pull off the miracle overnight and we probably shouldn’t expect the same from wine. So how do wine producers go about crafting NA wines, and are we overthinking them?
Catherine Diao and Dorothy Munholland started Studio Null in 2021. The duo sources fruit from European vineyards and turns out things like Blanc Burgunder, a white made from Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris, and Solo Garnacha, a red made from the eponymous Spanish grape. All Studio Null wines are non-alcoholic, which makes Diao’s and Munholland’s winemaking quest a bit different.
“In general, seeking out varietals known for their highly aromatic nature is a good starting place,” Diao says. “During dealcoholization, the more delicate aromas can sometimes be lost.” The industry is still in the relatively early stages with non-alcoholic wine and there’s a lot of exploring happening in the category. “There’s a lot of experimentation that we do, and much more still to be done,” Diao adds. “We haven’t found any varietals that we categorically reject for dealcoholization, but our general rule is: Quality in equals quality out.”
The brand’s latest release, Grüner Weiss, is made up of Grüner Veltliner and Gelber Muskateller from Austria. The latter is a lesser-known grape of Greek origin related to Muscat. “We found that the quality of the source vineyard, with a strong, multi-generational emphasis on land stewardship and sustainable growing practices, delivered a highly aromatic and expressive profile,” Diao says of the wine.
Making a non-alcoholic wine at least begins much the same way that it does with traditional wine. According to Diao, the aroma, tannin, weight, color, balance, complexity, depth, and finish of a non-alcoholic wine can vary greatly between varietals. “Even within the same varietal, expressions in NA wine can be huge depending on sourcing,” she says. “We work with family-run vineyards with an emphasis on land stewardship and distinctive expression, and we find that intention translates to the finished product.”
The co-founder has found that the zero-proof offerings do pretty well against their conventional siblings. “With Studio Null, we have a focus on transparency, so we list the grape varietal and source vineyard for each release on the bottle, but in blind tastings, sommeliers and wine critics have been able to identify the varietals and even provenance of our NA wines, and we’d like to continue delivering on that,” Diao says.
The dramatic shift, of course, comes in removing the alcohol. Dealcoholization is an intensive process, and removing the alcohol — which sometimes makes up to 15 or 16 percent of a wine’s volume — is like removing a load-bearing wall, Diao says. “During that process, the more delicate aromatics and flavors can be lost, though the technology is evolving and improving. We see exciting developments in retaining more aroma, and in reducing energy usage.”
“I like the idea of making a good product by finding the best raw ingredients rather than riding on the popularity of a few varieties.”
That process generally involves reverse osmosis or a spinning cone column. The former is essentially a hyper-filtration method that uses an advanced membrane to weed out the alcohol. The latter involves separating alcoholic and non-alcoholic versions of the wine via intense rotation. This produces aromatic vapors that are later reintroduced to the finished NA product. It’s a lot for an industry that touts “natural” wine and “hands-off” approaches in the cellar, or minimal intervention so as to hang on to the purity of the fruit and really spotlight terroir. But for producers like Studio Null, it’s necessary to both remove the alcohol and create something that resembles wine as we know it.
Nicolas Quillé is a Master of Wine and the chief winemaking and operations manager at Crimson Wine Group, which oversees several labels up and down the West Coast. He used to work for J. Lohr and had a good immersion in the non-alcoholic approach while there in the mid-1990s (the label launched Ariel, its NA expression, back in 1985).
“I like the idea of making a good product by finding the best raw ingredients rather than riding on the popularity of a few varieties,” Quillé says. “The trouble with wines without alcohol is that alcohol is an essential part of the sensory quality of a wine. It adds body, it allows it to age, and it carries the aromatics and augments the ability to reach your olfactive sensors. Without alcohol, wine is not wine, and it often must have additives to compensate for the lack of alcohol.”
There’s a naming issue as well, at least depending on where the wine is made. “Non-alcoholic wine is a weird term because in most countries you cannot call a product ‘wine’ that is below 7 to 8.5 percent ABV,” says Quillé. “Technically, this becomes a ‘wine product’ and is subject to ingredient labeling and loses its wine privileges — such as naming an AVA or a variety (note the variety part is legal in the U.S.A.).”
Quillé references almond milk, which technically isn’t milk but functions as such. “My personal opinion is that the intent of naming the variety on a dealcoholized wine is to give more information to the consumer,” he continues. “Anyone trying to compare the taste profile of a fully alcoholized wine to the dealcoholized version is going to be disappointed. I lean towards giving the information and not being precious about this.”
“We often taste our non-alcoholic wines against our original, full-alcohol blends, and have been pleasantly surprised with how much original expression we can get out of a non-alcoholic wine.”
As with traditional wines, production will vary based on grape variety and type. “The reds are a big challenge because the lack of alcohol makes the tannins very abrasive and bitter,” Quillé says. “The body coming from alcohol can be replaced by sugar or a gum. Since the alcohol is removed and it is not wine anymore, anything is game, really.”
Studio Null adds sulfur dioxide as a preservative, as do most wineries — and sugar, for the record. But the open-endedness that Quillé mentions — with wine governed by the TTB and NA wine an FDA category — is worth noting as you look up labels and want to know exactly what you’re consuming.
“We often taste our non-alcoholic wines against our original, full-alcohol blends, and have been pleasantly surprised with how much original expression we can get out of a non-alcoholic wine,” Diao says. “Weight and body can be most impacted by dealcoholization, especially with the red wines, and we find some differences there. With a NA sparkling wine, we can bridge that divide more and deliver a similar mouthfeel to a traditional sparkling wine alcohol, so we often recommend people start by trying those if they’re exploring NA wine for the first time.”
Undoubtedly, NA wine has improved in the past decade and it will likely only continue to do so in the future. The newest generation of imbibers is supposedly drinking less, and many believe the zero-proof sector is flourishing as a result. Perhaps the process will someday become so sophisticated that it will allow something as delicate and nuanced as Pinot Noir to cast its alcohol gracefully aside and walk into the non-alcoholic horizon, still clutching all of its flavor and fragrances. Or, perhaps we will stop comparing and just treat an alcohol-free Syrah as a useful wine alternative.
“We’ve seen some very exciting developments in dealcoholization over the last several years, particularly in aroma retention,” Diao says. “A lot of the innovation is coming from brewers and other experts in food science who are thinking about fermentation in some creative, out-of-the-box ways. We’re excited to utilize these new developments and ways of production for upcoming releases.”
For Quillé, there’s also promise in untapped geography. “I would not be surprised if we see some excellent NA wines in the future from regions that do not have a strong investment in traditional winemaking,” he says.
And there are always other non-wine, non-alcoholic avenues as well. “The curious NA wine producer may want to play with blending NA wine, vinegar, juice, with or without carbonation — I bet there is a product somewhere that hasn’t been created yet,” Quillé says.
For now, the folks at Studio Null will keep innovating and Quillé will opt for a more conventional pour.
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