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Lower alcohol wines   
A new retail category?  

It’s often stated that there is a need for more innovation in the wine category, but actually realizing this can be problematic in an area of the drinks industry where tradition is so important, and so many rules surround its production. Now, however, technology and consumer demand have come together to create the potential for an entirely new category of wine: reduced alcohol table wines that (in theory at least) should taste every bit as good as their full-strength peers. This new category is being pioneered by Californian company TFC Wine and Spirits, who are an off-shoot of Conetech, a Californian company specializing in alcohol reduction.

Conetech use a technique called the spinning cone column, which fractionates wine, making it possible to remove alcohol separately from other volatile components. Currently, they treat wines from around 600 clients worldwide, and last year treated 6 million gallons. However, because they only treat a small proportion of each wine— around 10%— which is then back-blended, around 50 million gallons of wine will have been alcohol-reduced in this way. As well as a plant in California, Conetech also have plants in Chile, South Africa and Spain. The Spanish plant isn’t yet working on wine, because of European regulations, but instead is focusing on non-alcoholic products which this technique is also used for.


In recent years, alcohol levels in wines have crept up as winemakers have looked to work with riper grapes, which give the sorts of flavours that consumers prefer. This has led to protests and a call for wines with lower alcohol levels. David Stevens, head winemaker with TFC, says that ‘it’s not enough just to talk about less alcohol. People drink wine for pleasure, and as a winemaker I’ve always insisted that we at TFC offer something that’s delicious to drink.’ The TFC wines are adjusted down from initial levels of 14% to 11%, 8% and even 5.5% alcohol with the spinning cone column. ‘I’ve always rejected the conventional ways of making light wines,’ says Stevens, citing adding water or picking grapes earlier. ‘Wines crafted in a lighter style must be every bit as well balanced and have as much complexity of flavour as any other premium wine.’

TFC's David Stevens

So how does the column work? It contains around 40 upside down cones, half of which are fixed and half spin. In a vacuum environment, the cones spin the wine into thin liquid films, and a cool vapour rises off the wine, carrying the volatiles from the liquid. In the first pass, the ultra-light component consisting of the delicate flavours and aromas is carried off and condensed. This is known as the ‘essence’, and it is saved for later, to be recombined with the wine. The second pass takes off as much alcohol as you want to remove. Theoretically, you could then recombine the remaining low alcohol wine with the essence and the alcohol and end up with the same wine you started with.

The other technique currently used to reduce alcohol is reverse osmosis, which is a type of filtration system. It’s complex to explain in brief, but it works in a similar way to the body’s kidney: while conventional filtration systems have their flow blocked by the filtration membrane, which becomes clogged, here the flow is tangential to the membrane, which helps prevent the pores becoming blocked, although it requires a much larger membrane surface. It’s also known as ‘cross-flow’ filtration The consequence of this is that you need lots of very long filtration tubes all bundled together for reverse osmosis, making the system expensive compared with standard filtration systems, although it is still portable and very much cheaper than the spinning cone column. The cost of the spinning cone machine is around US$1 million, whereas a reverse osmosis machine costs around US$30 000 and is small enough to be moved around, making it possible to do alcohol reduction in the winery.

The rules are currently a problem for this sort of technology. In the USA spinning cones 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 hectolitres, 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.


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. However, there are loopholes for traditional styles such as Asti and Mosel wines that have lower alcohol. Also, if the wine comes from California, it can have 7% alcohol and still be called wine because of a reciprocal agreement. However, the lack of clarity to the rules makes working with these sorts of wines problematic. ‘When you are a pioneer in the industry you run into some bushes,’ says Stevens.

How does the Conetech process work? You might have a Chardonnay at 14% alcohol. You take 10 000 litres, which you put through the spinning cone, taking off first the volatile fraction (‘essence’) and then the alcohol, leaving you with 8250 litres of Chardonnay at 4% alcohol. You then add the aromatic ‘essence’ back in, which in some cases may enhance the wine because you are adding the volatile fraction from the original wine back to a smaller volume. The resulting 4% wine can be used as a blending component to add to untreated wine, to result in a final wine at a lower alcohol level.

How do the wines taste? I started off looking at a Californian Chardonnay at 14.3% alcohol. It had a sweet, ripe, slightly buttery nose, leading to a rich buttery palate that was quite broad. I then tasted the same wine after it had been through the spinning cone column, at 4% alcohol. This was more minerally with tangerine notes and some spicy richness. The palate was lemony and tart with hollow fruit and an enhanced sensation of acidity. ‘Alcohol is a masking agent,’ says Conetech’s head winemaker Scott Burr (pictured below), ‘so taking it away reveals what’s there. It also adds sweetness to the palate.’ It’s this sweetness that is missing in the 4% sample, and which exaggerates the acidity.

The next wine was a blend of 10% of the 4% sample with the remainder of the original wine, resulting in a Chardonnay at 13.2%. This was fresher than the original with more acidity apparent. The fruit showed through more. There’s a quite a difference, and the 13.2% wine was much nicer than the 14.3% original.

Then I tried the alcohol fraction that comes off the machine. This had a big whiff of sulphur dioxide, which comes off with the alcohol, and tasted quite sweet with a nice richness to it. The next sample was the essence fraction: the aromatic component that’s the first to come off the column. This had amazing aromatics when it was cut with water: really citrussy, fruity and estery.  


How does a winemaker using Conetech as a contract provider decide how much alcohol should be reduced? ‘A big client who we’ve been working with a long time might specifiy they want their wine at 13.85%,’ says Burr. ‘A smaller client might say they have a Zinfandel at 16.8% alcohol, so we do a run, take the 4% component and blend wines at a bunch of different alcohol levels,’ he says. ‘I don’t tell the client what the alcohol level should be.’ In terms of which wines are more successful, Burr says that it is not a curve, but instead there are sweet spots. ‘There are all kinds of different ones. The more oak the bigger the variance.’

I then tried four different Californian wines each at three alcohol levels: the original level, and then reduced levels of 11% and 8%. A Chardonnay that tasted sweet and buttery at 14% alcohol tasted fresher with nice definition at 11%, and then more lemony and refreshing at 8%. A rosé showed best at 12.2%, and was perhaps less successful at 8%. A Shiraz was sweet, juicy and spicy at 14.6%, but fresher and more vivid with less sweetness at 11%; at 8% it was more savoury with fresh, pure fruit and a more gastronomic character. A Merlot showed really well at 11% and fresh, juicy and bracing with more apparent acidity at 8%. These are inexpensive wines, but with this alcohol reduction they really showed very well.

As well as alcohol reduction, there are also novel uses for the spinning cone, some of which currently face legal problems. One would be to take the pressings, add water and acid, and ferment them. Then you could take the volatiles from this using the spinning cone column and add them back to the wine, thus enhancing it.

In the UK, Guy Smith of TFC wines reports that one of the major UK supermarkets is interested in lower alcohol wines made with this technology. Indeed, as I did the rounds of the UK supermarket press tastings last autumn, several buyers expressed interest in these sorts of wines when I asked them. TFC have done consumer focus groups looking at how people respond to these wines. ‘Most people don’t like low alcohol products from experience,’ says Smith, ‘but if you can get them to try these wines they like them.’ His two pronged strategy is (1) to prove that the wines work, and (2) prove that there is a market for lower alcohol wines. He thinks they are especially suited to occasions where people will be drinking for a long time. One particularly promising market is women in pubs, where currently a large (250 ml) glass of Chardonnay will provide more than the daily recommended alcohol intake. Smith is under no illusions, though. ‘What we think about the market is irrelevant,’ he admits. ‘It’s what the consumer says that matters.’

Stevens reveals that TFC have done a lot of work with focus groups in the UK on these lighter styled wines with lower alcohol. ‘This work reaffirmed our old beliefs, but also gave use a lot of new ideas,’ he says. (They used Nunwood in Leeds, which is also used by Tesco.)

One product made using this technique is already in UK supermarket Tesco, and is doing well. It’s labelled as a ‘reduced alcohol wine-based drink’ and is called Sovio White Zinfandel Sparkling Rosé. Retailing at £4.99 and with 5.5% alcohol, it’s attractively fruity and fresh, with strawberry, melon and herb notes.   

Also in the Sovio range is Sovio ‘made with’ Chardonnay sparkling white, which is also 5.5% alcohol. It has sweet fruit, with toasty richness and nice straw notes. It’s gently sweet and quite tasty.


Lapwing ‘made with’ Chardonnay is another 5.5% wine-based drink with a lemony, fruity nose and a light, fruity palate that works really well. I also tried a 2008 Rueda that was originally 13.4% alcohol, but which had been brought back to 9%. This was fantastically fruity and rich with lovely peachiness as well as some tropical passion fruit notes. It’s a nice rich white wine that doesn’t stand out as being low alcohol at all.

For red wines, Stevens says that there is a natural limit to how much the alcohol can be reduced by. ‘We can’t go to 5.5% for red wines,’ he says. ‘We’ve tried it and it doesn’t work.’ TFC’s Touchstone Eight range is at 8% alcohol. The Merlot is sweet and fruity with a hint of earthiness, and is light, attractive and wine-like. The Windsong range is at 11% alcohol. I tried the Windsong California Chardonnay 2007 which is bright, fruity and focused with nice lemon and tropical fruit. The Windsong California Merlot is bright and sweetly fruited but in a lighter, more fun style with nice acidity. Both work really well.  

Who else is doing this sort of thing? I’ve been unimpressed by lighter styled, lower alcohol wines where this has been achieved by picking very early: 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. A newcomer here is So’Light, a pair of wines from Domaines Auriol in the south of France. The range currently consists of a Sauvignon, Merlot and a rosé, all at 9%, with the alcohol reduced by means of reverse osmosis.

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. The wines currently offered by TFC wines taste pretty good: I’d say that they are more appealing, and perhaps more authentic and food-friendly, than their untreated counterparts, which suffer somewhat from their elevated alcohol levels. But what is needed to drag this category from a tiny niche to a more mainstream fixture in the retail sector is a concerted push from a major retailer to establish lower alcohol wines as a genuine category.

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