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EU Rigidity: An obstacle in low alcohol wines

Posted: Saturday, 16 October 2010 10:28

EU Rigidity: An obstacle in low alcohol wines

The wine industry is facing a continuous decrease in wine consumption particularly in the countries where wine drinking is traditional. The surveys show that alcohol is one important reason for people adapting a restrained in drinking habits. Several firms or research institutes are then turning to low alcohol wine as a solution to this problem, so far with limited success, writes Rajiv Seth.

According to a latest research low alcohol wine could get acceptance if the problem of the taste can be solved. In this case, low alcohol wine should be positioned as a wine rather than a diet drink. Legally speaking wines with different levels of alcohol have a specific legal name, these are:

Alcohol free : 0 - 0.05%
De-alcoholised: 0.05- 0.5%
Low alcohol wines: 0.5% - 1.2%
Reduced wines : 1.2% - 5.5%

To be classed as a wine, wine must have a minimum alcohol level of 8.5% except some German wines which are allowed to be as low as 6.5% abv (alcohol by volume). Today in wine world there's a regular discussion on the growing importance of low alcohol wines. Technology such as the spinning cone and reverse osmosis have made it possible to reduce the alcohol level of finished wines without damaging the wine flavors all that badly. And with the recent media push towards lower alcohol wines, there is every possibility that we witness the birth of a new category of wine in days to come with reduced levels of alcohol.

Experts agree, that there is a need for more innovation in the wine category, but actually realizing this can be problematic in an area of industry where tradition is more important than innovation, and that too where so many rules and legal frameworks surround its production.

Now recent advent in some of the technologies and consumer demand has come together to create the potential for an entirely new category of wine; reduced alcohol table wines that should taste every bit as good as been traditionally produced.

Right now there are some intense technologies available for reduction of alcohol levels in a production line, some of which needs special attention

1) Spinning cone
2) Reverse osmosis

Complex regulations hinder the promotion of lower-alcohol wines. Advertising rules preventing alcohol being marketed as "high strength" also affect lower-alcohol products – and neither can any health claims be made about wine above 1.2 per cent ABV. And while "low" alcohol can be used to define wine below 1.2 per cent, in which the alcohol has been completely removed, the terms "lower alcohol" or "reduced alcohol" cannot be used to describe wine in the crucial, consumer-friendly, sector between 1.2 and 10 per cent.

Duty rates deter discounting to favors low- alcohol: all wines between 5.5 per cent (8.5 per cent for sparkling wine) and 15 per cent indiscriminately attract a higher level of duty than those below. Exceptions are made for those wines from Germany and parts of Italy which produce wines with alcohol levels naturally below 8.5 per cent.

The French officially recognize the value of lower alcohol wines and have set up a commission specifically to develop acceptable wines at between 6% and 12% alcohol. As late as in 2007, High Court in UK over-turned a ban placed by the UK Food Standards Agency on sales of the wines made using an unauthorized technique" (the 'spinning cone' method). In October 2008 the European Commission agreed that European Union wines that use experimental techniques to reduce the alcohol content could be marketed across Europe as long as producers followed a number of conditions.

The rules across different continents are posing a problem for using such technologies to bring down alcohol levels. In the USA spinning cone have been authorized for alcohol reduction, but in Europe this technique was until recently only allowed on an experimental basis. This meant that you were allowed to treat 50 000 hL of production to be marketed in the originating country but it can’t leave the country of origin. However, in November 2008 the rules were changed, making a 2% adjustment of alcohol legal, as long as it is declared. But reducing alcohol in this way may not be permitted under some specific AOC regulations in France (and presumably other appellation specific regulations in other countries). The rather different local rules make this a confusing area to operate in.

There are other simple ways of reducing alcohol in wine. The easiest is to simply add water to the wine diluting the alcohol levels. This practice is frowned upon in Europe, but in America where alcohol levels can be excessive in some regions, it is not uncommon.

Exporting an alcohol-reduced wine from a country where this is legal, such as the USA, to the European Union can be problematic. In the UK the regulations are overseen by the Wine Standards Branch of the Food Standards Agency, which is staffed largely by ex-policemen, who enforce the rules rigidly and who don’t necessary have expert technical wine knowledge. The legal definition of wine is that it has to have 9% alcohol. But in case of the wine exported from California, it can have 7% alcohol and still be called wine because of a bilateral trade agreement on this ruling, however; the lack of clarity on such rules makes even wine law experts struggling in the dark with these sorts of wines.

There are experts who argue that they are unimpressed by lighter styled, lower alcohol wines where they are made by picking very early the unripe grapes: these wines seem to lack character. So it seems that the best method for producing these wines is to make a wine with properly ripe grapes and then reduce the alcohol so that they can retain their natural fruity aromas and still tastes like the natural table wines.

EU wine laws experts openly criticise the new world wine producers for the rising levels of alcohol in wines as most of the higher alcohol wines are produced in countries where there is a lot of sun and therefore the grapes ripen extra well meaning that they contain a high sugar content which is mainly responsible for higher alcohols in wines. Arguing if EU can support Germany for having permitted to market its low alcohol wines for reasons of area getting less sunshine than it should also be supportive to new world wine producers who are at crossroads for getting too much of natural sun shine.

But it seems EU has chosen Tradition over Innovation as a disguise to support its ailing wine sector and in the name of tradition and the concept of natural wines it is simply overlooking the needs of wine industry in the new emerging health conscious wine consumer segment, who is been regularly pressurized by a daily dose of overzealous medical practitioners.

On the other hand technically speaking it is no easy task to produce a low alcohol wine. Simply because a delicious wine may end up tasting horrible once the alcohol is removed or reduced. The acidity balance is a major challenge. A wine maker has to make the initial wine with this in mind.

As the global market witnessed a continued rise in the strength of wine, the reaction is also growing in favor of low alcohol wines. Many consumers favor wines at 13% or below and technology appears to be accommodating these desires.

As far as markets are concerned the reduced alcohol wines have all but disappeared from the US markets and were never an issue in Canada or the U.K. where climatic conditions naturally favored moderate alcohol levels. The emerging leader in this market sector appears to be France, which is now exporting wines at levels reduced to 9-11% using new technologies.

Realizing the growing importance of low alcohol segment as a growing opportunity, Australian Wine and Brandy Corporation (AWBC); has made arrangements with EC and now Australian wines with a minimum of 4.5% alc. /vol. can continue to be sent to EC. Under this new arrangement Australian wine producers are not subject to the arbitrary maximum limit of 2% alcohol reduction when using practices such as Spinning Cone or Reverse Osmosis which is not permitted in EU.

One question which arises in mind of a consumer is-do these high-tech wines really compete with higher alcohol wines made in traditional ways? A blind tasting conducted by the French National Institute for Agronomic Research showed that tests on more than 1,000 people demonstrated that producers could reduce the alcohol content by up to three percentage points without an ordinary drinker noticing.

Some experts trace the reason for the growing acceptability of low alcohol wines in the rising acceptability of Rose’ in recent years. The recent spurt in Rose’ sales have helped convince the trade there is now consumer acceptance for lighter, fruitier wines, which can be lower in alcohol.

If the legal hurdles, which currently are a hindrance and not terribly clear, can be sorted out, then there looks to be a niche for these sorts of wines. There seems to be a demand on the part of the consumer for wines that are lower in alcohol, but which do not compromise flavour.


While an interesting concept many people miss is that, alcohol is a core component to wine. It adds body, alters the volatility of aromatic compounds and brings flavor components to the wine. While removing alcohol through newer methods may not “damage” the wine per-se but it will definitely not be the same product less the intoxicating effect of alcohol. It will be a product with very different mouth feel. Again the category has merit but people should not compare the two as they are essentially two very different products and it’s unfair to compare them. But what is needed is to drag this category from a tiny niche to a more mainstream retail sector as a concerted push from major retailers to establish lower alcohol wines as a genuine category.

It appears that having wine without alcohol would be like “Enjoying sex without Orgasm”

Rajiv Seth

Rajiv Seth is a wine educationist, Author and an expert in International Wine Legislation especially European Union. In 1987, he became the first Indian to be awarded a gold medal from WSET, London. He also writes for DelWine.



Jagdish Chander Says:

In India we are producing only table grapes (18 brix) which can make alcohol upto 6-7 %. We find that freshly fermentated grape juice is fortified. Additives are also used. There is no regulatory authority to ban illegal activities. Wine shops sell only liquors, wihsky,rum gin, vodhka, etc which are largely the bye-products of sugar industry. In the absence of any regulation enforcement agency for wine-making there is wide spread corruption in the country in wine-making. In Europe wine making is a long tradition and all regulated and its wines are made according to certain well defined practices. It is ironical to mention that we produce liquors/fortified alcoholic beverages and drugs so called indian wine industry. Wines are only made in vineyards and isolated villages. We have neither infrastucture nor the financial support for vintage wines. We should be only discussing about freshly fermented sweet beverage of grape fruit and how to improve its quality as tonic for fitness and health and get recognition as a natural produce instead of mingle it with alcohlism. Wineshop is a misnomer in India and represent vested interest of liquor industry. It does not help the wine trade. France produces vintage wines. By using aditives we cannnot make wine. We have to produce better grapes for producing better wines. We do not have viticulture experts nor possess oenological back-ground for producing any wine. Jagdish Chander

Posted @ February 24, 2011 12:37


G Finch Says:

"As late as in 2007, High Court in UK over-turned a ban placed by the UK Food Standards Agency on sales of the wines made using an unauthorized technique" (the 'spinning cone' method). " This is factually inaccurate. The High Court upheld the Food Standards Agency's decision and endorsed the action it had taken. It also accepted the Food Standards Agency's view that the product in question could be sold a "reduced alcohol wine based drink". However, that apart, it does not alter the view that reduced alhol wines should be more adequately defined.

Posted @ October 20, 2010 15:48


Gopal Gurnani Says:

The best .

Posted @ October 02, 2010 13:10


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