The nature of wine is surprisingly high-tech
Wine is produced from fermenting grape juice. During that process the sugars and yeast form alcohol. Wine, by law must have a minimum and a maximum percentage of alcohol by volume. Usually between 9 percent and 15.5 percent, depending on the type and style of wine. Since the formation of alcohol is a natural process, balancing the wine to create the optimum amount of alcohol can be achieved by a few different techniques. The wine maker may add water to lower the alcohol level, which will affect the overall flavor of the wine by diluting the true flavors of the juice, and is illegal. Another interesting technique is removing the alcohol by mechanical means. These techniques will retain the integrity of the flavor profile the winemaker wanted to achieve from that particular batch of grapes. The two mechanical methods are reverse osmosis and the spinning cone method. There are two facilities in northern California that de-alcoholize wine. One is located in Santa Rosa: That facility employs the cone method. A reverse osmosis facility is located in the Sebastopol area. About 20 wineries own their own reverse osmosis machinery to use when their winemaker deems it necessary. Sutter Home Winery is the only major winery that owns and operates a spinning cone. A spinning cone machine to remove alcohol can cost more than $2 million dollars, which is why most wineries use the Sonoma facility to lower the alcohol level of their wines. Sutter Home uses their machine mainly to produce their non-alcoholic wine, Fre.The spinning cone method employs a vertical stainless steel cylinder, which is operated under a vacuum and through centrifugal force removes compounds from liquid. This distillation process removes alcohol from wine at low temperatures and supposedly does not alter the character of the wine. The reverse osmosis procedure pumps the wine through honeycombed tubes at high pressure to adjust the alcohol levels of the wine. The filtration is such that only the alcohol, volatile compounds (flavors and aromas), and water pass through. The wine is then distilled under pressure to remove some alcohol. It is then re-combined producing a lower alcohol wine.Apparently, we probably have all had wine that has been through some de-alced proceedure. According to both these facilities, 1,600 clients, mostly from California, have employed their services. Between the two facilities, they have de-alcholized more than 42 million cases of wine, or about 18 percent of the wine produced in California in 2006.Allthough the names of the wineries that use these two facilities are kept private, many well-known wineries have admitted using this process at some time. In fact, there have been wines on Wine Spectators top 100 lists that had undergone this de-alc process, as well as $170-a-bottle Napa Valley cabernets.
There are several reasons to remove excess alcohol in wine. Wines with a high level of alcohol tend to taste hot, and give you a burning sensation at the back of your palette. Too much alcohol will alter the style of a wine, altering the true varietal character of the grapes used in the wine. It overshadows the true fruit flavors and the ability to enjoy the subtle complexities of the wine. These processes are used to produce a balanced wine.Large wine corporations de-alcoholize their wines to get them under 14.001 percent, to reduce their tax burden. Wines under 14 percent alcohol by volume are taxed $1.07 per gallon, and above that the rate rises to $1.57 a gallon, which could be a substantial amount for those companies producing large amounts of wine. Most winemakers consider this another technique for producing high quality, well-crafted wines. Winemakers use these processes sparingly, and only when they feel the alcohol content dramatically affects the wine. Most of us like to think the wine we are enjoying is the true nectar of the gods, and it has come to us from beautiful vineyards, and wonderful cool dark, and sweet-smelling wineries, lined with beautiful oak barrels filled with this nectar. The reality is that technology is employed throughout the wine making process to produce excellent wines. We now have another topic to discuss when tasting a wine: Was it de-alcoholized or not?