How the Alcohol Content in Wine Affects Your Tasting Experience

The alcohol content in wine is an essential component of your enjoyment, not just for the buzz. Reduced alcohol wines often lack flavor and structure.

Are you adept at Dry January, meaning, are you cutting any form of alcoholic drink consumption for 31 days?

I first heard of this practice at a professional social event in a famous wine region in Ontario, CDN. Most guests honored the local vintners by sipping local wines, except one official who chose sparkling water. When asked if he wanted some wine after that first refreshment, he declined in observance of Dry January.

I find the act of cutting any alcohol consumption for one month a bit dramatic, and with all respect. I've always been adept at drinking wine in moderation.

Is reducing alcohol consumption a trend?

Beyond this annual tradition, a growing number of people are indeed cutting back on their alcohol consumption. This behavior change might have deepened during the early pandemic lockdowns, although the demand for low alcoholic drinks has increased steadily over the last two decades. The primary motivation being driven by health concerns related to overconsumption [Bucher, 2018]

Not everyone completely cuts out all forms of alcohol but moderates their intake. That's why reducing the alcohol content in wine is a way for producers to respond to this trend.

The alcohol content of the wines you drink directly impacts your tasting experience. But removing alcohol tremendously affects the wine taste, aroma, and mouthfeel attributes.

Let's investigate further.

How does alcohol affect your wine tasting experience?

Wine results from the fermentation of grape juice by yeasts. Yeasts metabolize grape sugar in ethanol and carbon dioxide. 

The more sugar in the grapes, the more alcohol is produced.

European style wines usually contain around 12% alcohol by volume (ABV), but this can vary greatly, depending on the type and style of wine and where it was produced.

Wines made in warmer climates have a higher ABV, sometimes as high as 14.9%.

There are more than a thousand volatile compounds in wine, and alcohol is the most abundant. It can evoke both taste and mouthfeel sensations.

  • Taste: it's sweet but also described as bitter.
  • Mouthfeel: it irritates,  burns your nose or tongue, even at low concentration (0.1% to 3% v/v), cited in Jordão et al. (2015).

Alcohol also contributes to the ill-defined term "Body" [See my article on what body is]. Researchers showed a relation between the physical measures of wine viscosity and density and alcohol content, but not with the sensory perception. Other researchers argue that alcohol has nothing to do with what wine professionals refer to as "body."

Alcohol interacts with other wine components, influencing our perception of flavor and mouthfeel.

So what happens when we reduce the alcohol content in wine?

Reducing the alcohol content in wine is not as simple as diluting it with water or sugar. Several techniques exist pre-fermentation, during, and post-fermentation [Sam et al., 2021]. 

The most common practices are post-fermentation and consist of removing alcohol from a finished wine either through a membrane or by distillation. 

The challenge for these techniques is to remove precisely the tiny alcohol molecules and nothing else. But aromatic compounds and water get extracted as well.

Many studies looked at the effect of de-alcoholization on the wine tasting experience. Results depend on the technique used, the wine type (white or red), and the percentage of alcohol removed.

But the common effects of alcohol reduction in wine are:

  • Decrease in 
    • Overall persistence in the mouth (length)
    • Heat sensation
    • Texture/body
    • Sweetness
    • Number of aromas perceived/complexity.
  • Depending on the study,
    • Increase or decrease in fruit intensity, cooked notes, grass/vegetative notes.

Wine ABV reduced to 9/10 ABV remain enjoyable for most consumers; a lower ABV becomes a matter of personal preference. 

Like in any attempt to reduce a positive component in a food or beverage (think fat, salt, or sugar), a threshold of reduction exists. Above it, the product is pleasing and enjoyable. Below it, it's no longer acceptable.

I have yet to taste good non-alcoholic wine. But, several wine writers have pointed out that non-alcoholic sparkling wines are the only decent offering in the zero-alcohol category. 

Zero-alcohol beers and spirits launched successfully in 2021.

Let's be open-minded and ready to experiment with this new space.

References used for this article
  • Bucher et al. Beverages 2018, 4, 82; doi:10.3390/beverages4040082
  • Jordão et al Beverages 2015, 1, 292-310; doi:10.3390/beverages1040292
  • Sam et al., 2021. Techniques for Dealcoholization of wines: Their Impact on Wine Phenolic Composition, Volatile Composition, and Sensory Characteristics. Foods, 10, 2498.
  • Lesschaeve, I. https://www.winetasting-demyst...

Categories: Lifestyle, wine style

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Isabelle Lesschaeve

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Internationally renowned wine sensory scientist, Isabelle demystifies wine tasting and helps serious wine lovers sharpen their tasting skills and tasting notes in a supportive community.

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