Non-alcoholic vs de-alcoholised wine — What’s the diff?

During the festive season, I went shopping for wine to take to my family’s Christmas lunch (if you can’t afford presents for the whole extended family, then a good bottle or two of wine will always keep you in their good books), when I almost bought a bottle of de-alcoholised wine by mistake. At first I thought that de-alcoholised was just a synonym for alcohol-free or non-alcoholic wine, but apparently, I was wrong! I set out to find out what exactly differentiates non-alcoholic from alcohol-free wines and how this affects us as consumers.

In essence, non-alcoholic wine can sometimes just be grape juice dressed up as wine, while de-alcoholised wine is generally used to refer to wine that has had the alcohol removed. So what exactly does that mean for us as consumers? There are a few differences in taste as well as how the wines are made, so if you’ve also been wondering which is fine to serve to pregnant women or people who don’t drink for religious reasons, keep reading!

Non-alcoholic? De-alcoholised? Alcohol free? What does it all mean??

If you’re shopping for yourself or someone you know who doesn’t drink at all due to pregnancy, medical reasons, personal choice or religious reasons, you’ll have to be able to tell the difference between the types of non-alcoholic choices. It’s always especially important to be 100% sure of your choice when you’re shopping for someone who doesn’t drink due to religious reasons, as the rules for this can be very strict.

For a drink to be classified as non-alcoholic in South Africa, the product has to have less than 0,5% alcohol, but some drinks do also boast 0% alcohol. In South Africa, the terms “non-alcoholic” and “de-alcoholised” are often used interchangeably to mean wine which either has had the alcohol removed or never had any alcohol to start with.

If you’re in the bottle store looking for a non-alcoholic option, you’ll most likely be confronted with these three different types of wines.

Alcohol Free/ 0% Alcohol Wine

Alcohol free wine will always be your safest bet if you’re unsure of which wine alternative to get. If a product is classified on the bottle as alcohol free or as having 0% alcohol, you can be guaranteed that there is absolutely no alcohol and that it’s safe for everyone (even kids) to drink.

Alcohol free wines don’t have the same flavour profile as boozy wine, due to the grapes never having been fermented, even when traditional wine grapes — such as Shiraz, Chenin and the likes— are used. The fermentation process converts the natural sugars present in grapes into alcohol, which results in the wine being less sweet as well as the traditional flavours we know and love. So because alcohol free wines are made without fermenting the grapes, the end result is usually a bit sweeter than traditional wines, however, some alcohol free wine producers remove some of the sugar which results in a less sweet product.

Non-Alcoholic Wine

As I mentioned earlier, non-alcoholic wine is wine that has less than 0,5% alcohol. This means that some non-alcoholic wines could in theory be alcohol free, but this is not necessarily the case. Non-alcoholic wines generally undergo some form of fermentation, but the production of alcohol is interrupted by halting the fermentation process early or by mixing the fermented wine with the unfermented drink to lower the alcohol percentage. In some non-alcoholic wines, the alcohol is removed by the process of de-alcoholisation, but for the purposes of this article I’ll keep that as a separate category.

Since non-alcoholic wine does contain some alcohol, it’s not ideal to serve to teetotallers, but it can be consumed safely without the fear of getting drunk, so it’s perfect for those days where you’re the designated driver! In fact, in order to feel any impairment of cognitive abilities (i.e. getting tipsy or drunk) on 0,5% alcoholic wine, the average person will have to down between 8 and 10 glasses in less than 10 minutes.

Non-alcoholic wines taste more similar to traditional wine, as the fermentation process adds some of the classic flavours we associate with wine, while also removing some of the sugars. Just don’t expect that no-one will be able to tell the difference between non-alcoholic wine and traditional boozy wine, as the difference in flavour can be picked up easily by pretty much anyone.

De-Alcoholised Wine

If you’re used to drinking wine, de-alcoholised wine will probably give you the closest approximation of the flavours of wine, however, don’t expect it to taste exactly like wine, it does take some getting used to. De-alcoholised wine also has less than 0,5% alcohol, but the process of making it is different than the process of making non-alcoholic wine described above.

In layman’s terms, de-alcoholisation is the term used to describe the process of taking alcoholic wine and removing most of the alcohol from it. This means that de-alcoholised wine is made using exactly the same process as making alcoholic wine, but once the fermentation process is complete, the alcohol is removed from the wine through either vacuum distillation or reverse osmosis.

I won’t bore you with too many details, but basically, reverse osmosis filters out the aromatics from the wine before the alcohol is removed through distillation. Once the alcohol has been removed, the filtered aromatic water is added back into the de-alcoholised wine concentrate. This means that the wine will retain most of the flavours associated with wine. This process can be quite expensive and time consuming, as the wine usually has to go through 2 – 4 times before enough alcohol is removed for it to be classified as de-alcoholised.

On the other hand, vacuum distillation evaporates the wine inside a vacuum chamber. This process volatilises the aromas in the wine, which leaves us with a less aromatic wine, which means that the flavour also won’t be as spot-on as wine de-alcoholised through reverse osmosis.

So why do they taste so different?

Even the best non-alcoholic or de-alcoholised wines don’t taste or smell as good as the real thing. In most cases, some of the flavours don’t make it through the distilling process as I mentioned above, but there are also other factors at play. In wine, the aromas (and thus flavours) are transmitted from the surface of the wine through the evaporation of the alcohol. Obviously, if there isn’t alcohol in the wine, this can’t happen, which impacts the flavour of the wine. Another problem is that the process of removing the alcohol from wine can also remove the tannins, which give wines their signature texture and body.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m not saying alcohol-free alternatives to wine aren’t good — in fact, they can sometimes even be better than some wines! I’m just saying that your wine aficionado uncle or friend will most likely notice if you try to pawn off de-alcoholised or non-alcoholic wine as traditional wine. However, after a few glasses (or maybe bottles in some cases) you’ll get used to the flavours and probably won’t mind drinking non-alcoholic wine.

If you’re looking for alcohol-free alternatives to wine in South Africa, you’ve got quite a few options. You can buy them online or at most supermarkets that have a wine section or bottle stores. My favourites include Lautus de-alchoholised Savvy white (R54,99 at Woolies), Van Loveren Almost ZeroWonderful White (R65 at Van Loveren), and Zari Sparkling Grape (R65 at Pick ‘n Pay). Lots of online retailers also offer non-alcoholic or de-alchoholised wines and deliver straight to your door!

Basically, think of non-alcoholic wine or de-alcoholised wine as vegan cheese. If you expect vegan cheese to have the same flavour and texture as normal cheese, you’ll be in for a surprise, but if you think of it as a different product altogether that has taste and texture in its own right, you’ll probably like it!

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