Friday, 16 August 2019

Low alcohol / no alcohol wine? Are they wine?

The trend may not be obvious in Hong Kong but low-alcohol or no-alcohol wine/beer/spirits is getting popular in the UK and the US. Hong Kong importers offering these products claim sales are satisfactory. Is there a place for these low/no alcohol ‘alcohol beverage’ or is it just a fad?

Advocates of low/no alcohol wine argue that they want to socialise with friends and have a good time but don’t want to feel pressurised to drink. I, a devoted wine lover, have to admit that there are times that I don’t feel like any wine (or alcohol). It may be because I am too tired, not feeling well or just don't feel like to. However, I will still go out with friends and happily sip a sparkling water. If my friends pressurise me to drink, I don’t think they are my real friends.

I remember the very oily vegetarian dishes we had in temples when I was young. All the dishes served had names like ‘vegetarian fish’, ‘vegetarian goose’, and so on, and the food was shaped like a fish or goose. I think this is hypocritical; I love vegetarian food and will proudly have a nice bowl of salad rather than some kind of oily stuff in the shape of fish. The same applies to low/no wine, why drink something called ‘wine’ if you don’t want it?

Going back to wine, alcohol is a natural product of grape juice fermentation. Alcohol contributes to palate weight and supports the aromas. One way to make low alcohol wine is to make the wine in a normal process then deliberately remove the alcohol. To me, the process (usually by spinning cone or reverse osmosis) is just like chopping a limb off a person. The resultant ‘wine’ is unbalanced and incomplete.

The other way to make low alcohol wine is to stop fermentation midway before all sugar is converted to alcohol. However, the final product will also have significant sugar. So which one is a lesser evil? Alcohol or sugar?

The final alcohol in wine depends on the sugar the grapes contain when harvested. In the past 20-30 years, winemakers have deliberately left the grapes on vines for a longer period of time after the grapes have ripened (prolonging hang time), resulting in high sugar accumulation in berries thus higher alcohol content in wine. Recently, winemakers are choosing to pick the grapes when they are just ripe, producing livelier, fresher and lower alcohol wine naturally. Depending on your interpretation of low alcohol, a wine from a cooler region such as Germany has much lower alcohol than wine from a warmer region. Consumers who are concerning about their alcohol intake can opt wine from cooler regions. These wines will not have ultra-low alcohol unless they are sweet but they are natural and complete. 

And there is the taste. At a recent debate on the topic, we tasted some pretty horrendous low/no alcohol wine. The white wine tasted sugary with no acid structure and the red wine was like the bitter herbal medicine. These wines are often relatively more expensive because of the extra process necessary to remove the alcohol.

I’m not at all against alcohol free beverage but I don't’ agree to drink low/no alcohol in order to appease our peers, nor to I want to pay a premium for something that is not enjoyable. Low/no alcohol must taste god before they can take off. Until then, I will just stick to water or juice
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