The Challenges of Creating Alcohol-Free Red Wine That Truly Complements Food.

non-alcoholic red wine and a beautiful table of food

In the world of beverages, alcohol-free options are gaining popularity, and red wine is no exception. However, creating an alcohol-free red wine that not only captures the essence of traditional reds but also complements food can be a challenging task. In this blog post, David Hodgson, founder of Zeno - Prestige alcohol-liberated wines - delves into the complexities and obstacles faced in perfecting alcohol-free red wines that satisfy both taste buds and culinary experiences.

When it comes to alcohol-free wines, there's a long-standing assumption that they simply can't measure up to their alcoholic counterparts. Whether it's the taste, the aroma, or the mouthfeel, critics argue that alcohol-free wines lack the sophistication and complexity that make wine an ideal companion for a wide range of cuisines. But why is it so difficult to replicate the experience of traditional red wine without alcohol? 

Here’s why the journey to create a satisfying alcohol-free red wine is complicated, yet utterly intriguing.

A Matter of Taste

non-alcoholic red wine two glassesThe first and foremost challenge is undoubtedly the taste. Alcohol helps extract various compounds during the fermentation and maturation processes, contributing to the complexity of aromas and flavours. It is also the volatile compound that drives the flavour and aroma molecules into the nose and throughout the palate in traditional wine. 

When alcohol is removed, the wine often loses these complex characteristics, tasting flatter and less nuanced. That is why many of the earlier alcohol-free styles and some of the commercial brands taste more like grape juice than a luxurious red wine.

At ZENO, we ferment our base wines similar to traditional wine to produce the same complex aromas and flavours. During gentle, low temperature/high vacuum de-alcoholisation, we capture these compounds & skillfully re-introduce them to create the finished wines with minimum intervention.

Texture and Mouthfeel

Alcohol provides a viscous, slightly oily mouthfeel that contributes to a wine's body and finish. In alcohol-free wines, this is often missing, leaving the consumer with a beverage that feels somewhat watered down. 

Higher quality producers like ZENO are making progress in recreating this texture using alternative methods and this requires painstaking trials with often microscopic variation in ingredients to achieve the optimum balance, for each wine style. 

Tannin Structure

Tannins are chemical compounds found in grape skins, seeds, and stems, which add structure and astringency to red wines. They are essential in pairing wine with food, as they interact with proteins and fats to create a balanced dining experience. 

non-alcoholic red wine and a carafe with grapesAlcohol acts as a medium that carries tannins well, making the food-wine interaction more harmonious. The absence of alcohol can result in a less effective tannin structure, diminishing the food-pairing potential of the wine.

At ZENO we benefit from the extracting these valuable compounds through our traditional fermentation process, prior to de-alcoholisation. It actually starts in the vineyard, where we employ specific viticultural practices to ensure the right balance of tannins through focused varietal selection, ripening & bunch density management. 

Therefore, having dedicated vineyards ensures that we understand how to achieve better results year after year. More commercial producers will be sourcing from various vineyards or bulk wine suppliers where this opportunity is usually lost.

Food Pairing 

Wine and food pairing is almost a science in itself, relying on the balance of flavours, aromas, and textures to complement or contrast with various dishes. 

The bitterness, acidity, and tannins in red wine can make it an excellent pair for foods like red meats or rich sauces. However, alcohol-free red wines often struggle to replicate these characteristics, making them less versatile for pairing with food.

non-alcoholic wine with a carafeZENO wines are handcrafted at our winery & vineyard in Castile-la Mancha, Spain. In this region, food is part of the cultural bedrock. We chose our winning red style from the prototypes while savouring a selection of mouth-watering local jamon, cheeses, meats, oils, vegetables & breads, observing the alchemy of the combinations as we tasted. 

Production Costs and Availability

Producing a high-quality, alcohol-free red wine that captures the essence of its alcoholic sibling is no easy task. The de-alcoholisation process and the need for specialised ingredients and techniques does increase production costs, hence the argument that alcohol-free wines should be less expensive as they “don’t have the alcohol” is unfounded. In fact, alcohol doesn’t actually cost anything – it is a by-product of the fermentation process that happens to contribute volatile compounds, viscousity and, of course, ethanol - intoxicant/solvent.

Therefore, we’d rather regard alcohol-free wines as “less is more”, as without having alcohol to rely on, we have developed new techniques to meet and even surpass the qualities that it brings in traditional wine, without the downside.

As with other beverages, choosing a slightly more expensive alcohol-free wine to go with food will usually reward you with the complexity, texture and layers of flavour that a more commercial style struggles to achieve, as they tend to rely on sweetness for mouthfeel which is not conducive to food pairing.  

The Way Forward

Despite these challenges, the demand for high-quality, alcohol-free wines is growing, driven by health-conscious consumers and those who prefer to avoid alcohol. This demand is spurring innovation in winemaking techniques and technologies – an exciting frontier for winemakers. From using new techniques for more efficient and gentle alcohol removal to experimenting with wine structure & natural additives that mimic the mouthfeel of alcohol, the industry is evolving.

At ZENO, we are “vineyard to glass” winemakers. Our commitment to making prestige quality, alcohol-liberated wines starts in the vineyard and our team manages each stage through vinification, de-alcoholisation, blending & bottling. This focus has yielded unique techniques that enable us to create more texture, balance & length of finish in our wines.

zeno non-alcoholic wine rangeThe journey to creating benchmark alcohol-free red wines is an exciting voyage through both the art and science of winemaking. With ongoing research, new winemaking techniques and enormous consumer interest, you can now enjoy a bottle of alcohol-free red wine that truly stands up to its alcoholic counterpart, enhancing not just your meal, but also your overall dining experience. You just have to look for the brands that are going the extra mile to produce more sophisticated and enjoyable products.

ZENO – Prestige alcohol-liberated wines.

This article originally appeared in Issue 4 of Low No Drinker Magazine, and has been kindly reprinted here with permission from editor Denise Hamilton-Mace, and the author David Hodgson. 

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