Non-alcoholic wines: let’s shed some light, what does the EU text really say?

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Europe is attempting to harmonise a practice already adopted in some countries, but in Italy the wine industry is split between those who shout outrage and those who see new opportunities. The term “restitution of water” has raised a lot of doubts, but Brussels denies watering down and reiterates that DOC wines would not become alcohol free.

The topic of so-called non-alcoholic wines is not new (we already dealt with it in 2019, in the article “ALCOHOL FREE WINE: yes or no?“), but it has come back into the limelight in the last few days after the circulation of the draft document of the EU Regulation (No. 1308/2013) currently being discussed in Brussels, on the authorisation within oenological practices of the total or partial elimination of alcohol.

To tell the truth, this possibility was already present in the European Commission’s first proposal of June 2018, where the terms “de-alcoholised wine” (with an alcohol content not exceeding 0.5% vol.) and “partially de-alcoholised wines” (with an alcohol content between 0.5% and the limit set by each country, in Italy around 9%) made their appearance.

We are now in the final phase. With the new CAP just around the corner, the decision has to be made: should these products be included in the wine sector or not?

In Italy, at least up to now, a product must have an alcohol content of at least 9 degrees to be called wine (each denomination, then, refers to specific regulations).

WHAT DOES THE EU REPORT SAY?

While waiting for the final decision that will be taken on 26 May at the end of the meetings, let’s  shed some light on this topic and go through what is really written in the document under discussion.

First of all, the text clarifies that only partial dealcoholisation will be allowed for PDO and PGI products. Total dealcoholisation practices would therefore remain the prerogative of table wines.

Mandatory labelling requirements will be laid down, as these products may be defined as wines, but their labels must clearly specify “de-alcoholised” or “partially de-alcoholised” and their alcohol content. As regards the practices allowed for dealcoholisation, in addition to those already in use, others are being introduced, including the procedure that has caused the most controversy, namely the addition of water, which is referred to in the text as “restitution of water”. 

But what does this mean? Quite simply, in the normal process of dealcoholisation, i.e. when the ethanol molecule is extracted, the water is removed and then replenished.

BRUSSELS’ STATEMENT: “NO ONE TALKED ABOUT WATERING DOWN THE WINE”.

In the meantime, some clarifications are coming from Brussels, after the media storm in Italy:  The European Commission has never proposed to water down wine, but simply to change the EU legal framework to allow the development of non-alcoholic wines, i.e. wines with a lower alcohol content, products with a growing demand and which could be an interesting opportunity for the wine industry,” explained Commission spokesman Balazs Ujvari. According to the spokesman, “consumer demand for wines with lower alcohol content has increased significantly in recent years. However, it should be noted that the Commission’s proposal makes no reference to the addition of water”.

THOSE IN FAVOUR AND THOSE AGAINST

Having clarified the most controversial parts of the proposal, it remains to be seen whether it is worth introducing de-alcoholised products into the wine range or not and what the risks and opportunities might be for producers.

The Italian supply chain is split on this regard. For those in favour, including Unione Italia Vini and Federvini, it is important that these new categories remain within wine products because there is a huge market for such products and bringing them into the family of wine products would mean both controlling the production method and break into new markets.

Leaving them to the ‘beverage’ world would make them prey to other industries, thus becoming competitors. 

It is worth remembering that Italy currently produces 50 million hectolitres of wine, half of which is ordinary wine. Some of this, it is not valued or sold, and if this category makes its way to consumers, our bottlers will be the ones to gain something from it, rather than the food or beverage industries.

In short, it is better to be in the business than to be out of it, or even to be subjected to it.

France, Spain and Germany, for example, have adopted national rules since a long time, defining “de-alcoholised” or “partially de-alcoholised” wine, while Italy has just allowed some exceptions for some traditional products, such as cherry wine”.

Coldiretti, on the other hand, is against it, pointing its finger at the aforementioned “watering down”, describing it as “a legalised deception for consumers” and stating that this would mean to call “wine” a product whose natural characteristics have been completely compromised by an invasive treatment that intervenes in the age-old process of transforming grapes into must.

The president of Alleanza Cooperative Luca Rigotti shares the same opinion. He agrees that these rules should be included in the wine industry regulations and is not a priori against low-alcohol wines as they represent a commercial opportunity, but he still believes they should be called something else, such as “wine-based beverage”.

NOW POLITICS SAYS NO

On its side, the political world is trying to reassure. 

MEP Paolo De Castro says that a wine without alcohol cannot be defined as such and that is why the Parliament has always spoken out against it, even though it understands the commercial and export opportunities that low-alcohol wines would have in some markets, not least to face competition from other alcohol-free products in all those countries where only non-alcoholic drinks are consumed.

In any case, the cornerstone for any decision and future legislation on this matter is that the information on labels must be clear to all consumers, enabling them to make fully informed purchasing choices, including on the oenological practices that may be used to enable the extraction of alcohol, especially where this is done through the addition of water.

Source: Gambero Rosso