The trend may not be obvious in Hong Kong, but low-alcohol and no-alcohol wine, beer and spirits are becoming more and more popular in the UK and US. Hong Kong importers offering these products claim that sales here are satisfactory.
Is there a place for these low- and no-alcohol beverages or is it just a fad?
Advocates of low- and no-alcohol wine argue that they want to socialise with friends and have a good time but don’t want to feel pressured to drink. I, a devoted wine lover, have to admit that there are times I don’t feel like having any wine (or alcohol whatsoever). It may be because I am too tired, not feeling well or am just not in the mood. However, I will still go out with friends and happily sip a sparkling water or juice. If my friends pressure me to drink, I don’t think they are my real friends.
I remember the very oily vegetarian dishes we had at Chinese temples when I was young. All the dishes served had names like “vegetarian fish”, “vegetarian chicken” 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 a fish. The same applies to low- and no-alcohol wine – why drink something with the word “wine” or “alcohol” in the name if you don’t want it?
Going back to wine, alcohol is a natural by-product of grape juice fermentation. Alcohol contributes to palate weight and supports the aromas of wine. One way to make low-alcohol wine is via the normal winemaking process and then deliberately remove the alcohol. To me, this 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 the fermentation midway before all the sugar has been converted to alcohol. However, the final product will also have significant sugar. So which is the lesser evil – alcohol or sugar?
The final amount of alcohol in wine depends on the sugar that the grapes contain when they are harvested. In the past 20 or 30 years, winemakers have deliberately left grapes on vines for a longer period of time after the grapes have ripened (prolonging the hanging time), resulting in high sugar accumulation in the berries and thus a higher alcohol content in the wine. But , recently, winemakers are choosing to pick grapes when they are just ripe, naturally producing livelier, fresher and lower-alcohol wine.
Depending on your interpretation of low alcohol, wine from a cooler region such as Germany has much lower alcohol than wine from a warmer region. Consumers who are concerned about their alcohol intake can opt for wine from cooler regions. These wines will not have ultra-low alcohol (unless they are sweet), but they will be natural and complete.
And then there is the taste. At a recent debate on the topic, we tasted some pretty horrendous low- and no- alcohol wines. The white wine tasted sugary with no acid structure, and the red wine tasted like bitter herbal medicine. Plus, these wines are often relatively more expensive because of the extra process necessary to remove the alcohol.
I’m not totally against alcohol-free beverages, but I don’t think we should drink low- or no-alcohol wine in order to appease our peers nor do I want to pay a premium for something that is not enjoyable. Low- and no-alcohol wine must taste good before it can take off. Until then, I’ll just stick to water or juice.
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