10 November 2023 / Ádám Geri (translated by Vera Szűcs-Balás)
"Surveys are already showing that, within a few years, there will be a significant increase in the consumption of non-alcoholic and reduced alcohol beverages." The above quote is from Pál Rókusfalvy, Government Commissioner for National Wine Marketing. It is no coincidence that the subject is raised in an interview with him. Worldwide demand for non-alcoholic wines is growing by 25 percent a year and is forecast to soon account for 1 percent of the total wine market. It is more than just a fashion trend. The spread of these products is driven by health and nutritional reasons. We can expect to see more and more of such wines in Hungary, too. It is therefore worthwhile to be aware of the basic concepts and facts about non-alcoholic wines.
What is non-alcoholic wine?
In 2021, the European Union has created the legal framework (in its member countries) for the production of wines with reduced alcohol content. The amendment stipulates that wine, sparkling wine and semi-sparkling wine may undergo a total or partial de-alcoholisation process. Non-alcoholic wine is therefore not the same as grape juice, since it is produced by the extraction of alcohol from fermented, alcoholic wine. Non-alcoholic (NA) wine is wine in which the alcoholic strength by volume (ABV) is less than 0,5 %. (If the alcohol content of the wine falls below 10 % vol. as a result of the alcohol reduction, the label must bear the indication "de-alcoholised wine".)
How is non-alcoholic wine made?
There are currently two technologies available for total or partial alcohol removal.
In vacuum distillation, heat is used to separate the alcohol from the wine. This is made possible by the different boiling points of alcohol and water. The vacuum is intended to reduce the undesirable organoleptic characteristics (above all the cooked taste) that result from boiling. In an airtight chamber, the boiling point of liquids is lower (some producers boil wine at 30 degrees Celsius for the de-alcoholization process). Vacuum distillation can achieve an alcohol content as low as 0 per cent (this process is usually used to achieve an alcohol content of between 0.2 and 0.4 per cent).
In membrane separation, the alcohol molecules are separated by the size of the different membranes. A variant of membrane separation, known as reverse osmosis, can reduce the alcohol content of wines with much less loss of aroma. However, the process is expensive and cannot be used economically below 0.5% alcohol by volume.
The history of non-alcoholic wine dates back to the early twentieth century. The German Maria Jung peddled the wines from her family's estate all over Germany, but met with surprisingly widespread resistance. Many of the people she approached refused to buy wine, citing doctors' recommendations. Back home, Maria told her family about her failed business trip. Her son Carl Jung (not to be confused with the Swiss psychiatrist of the same name) then decided to find a solution to the problem. The result: in 1908, he patented a process for the de-alcoholisation of wine based on distillation.
What is non-alcoholic wine like?
Non-alcoholic wine can be made from any grape variety: wineries typically use the varieties that appear in the alcoholic selection for these wines as well. As with alcoholic wines, the quality is varied. The nose always brings the winey character, the taste less so. For people used to alcoholic wines, the taste will never be the same. Non-alcoholic wine can be both sweet and dry. There is currently much more of the former on the market. This is because the aforementioned loss of flavour is often compensated for by the addition of sugar.
Who can and should drink non-alcoholic wine?
Drinking alcohol during pregnancy, if you have certain medical conditions or are taking medicines or undergoing treatment for certain medical conditions is not recommended or is expressly forbidden. Those concerned include, but are not limited to people with diabetes and prediabetes. They can also choose quasi-sugar-free wines among the non-alcoholic wines. The back labelling of non-alcoholic wines must indicate the relevant values, in particular the carbohydrate content. On average, non-alcoholic wines contain three to six times fewer calories than their alcoholic counterparts, so they should also be considered for dietary purposes.
Who produces non-alcoholic wine in Hungary?
Of all Hungarian wineries, the only one currently offering non-alcoholic wine, or sparkling wine to be more precise, is the Törley Pezsgőpincészet in Budafok, Budapest. They produce both white and rosé versions. The latter won a gold medal at one of the world's most important international wine competitions, the Mundus Vini in Germany in the spring of 2023. In addition to their success, another important factor is that the (wine strategic) plans are to have the technological background for the de-alcoholisation process soon available in the country. So let's not be surprised if in a year or two other domestic wineries follow Törley's example.