Alcohol-free wines. Just to clarify: what does the EU literature really say?

May 31 2021, 08:35 | by Gambero Rosso
L’Europa vorrebbe armonizzare una pratica già adottata in altri Paesi, ma in Italia il mondo vitivinicolo si spacca tra chi urla allo scandalo e chi vi vede delle nuove opportunità. Dubbi sul termine “restitution of water”, ma Bruxelles smentisce l’annacquamento e ribadisce che le Doc non diventerebbero alcol free

From Gabriella Ferri's Roman stornello folk song to the miracle of the evangelical transformation of water into wine, there are many images that in recent days have come in response to the news regarding the so-called dealcoholized wines. The topic is not new, even if it has become a media case only in the last few days, after the circulation of the – still in draft – Community Regulation (n.1308/2013) currently under discussion in Brussels during the Commission-Parliament-Council trialogue, which authorises the total or partial elimination of alcohol in the context of winemaking practices.

The proposal dates back to 2018

In actual fact, the introduction of these products within the OCM was already present in the first proposal of the European Commission in June 2018, where article 193 of the same regulation mentioned the terms "dealcoholized wine" (with alcohol not exceeding 0.5% vol.) and "partially dealcoholized wine" (with alcohol content between 0.5% and the limit established for each country, approximately 9%). We are now, therefore, at the final stage. The one in which, with the new CAP at the gates, the decision must be made: whether or not to include these products in the wine sector? It would be the first time that attempts have been made to harmonise this category at European level. At the moment, in fact, it is the individual national legislations required to approve the wording, as Spain and Germany have already done. In Italy, however, a product to be called wine must have an alcohol content of about 9 degrees (each denomination, then, refers to the specific disciplinary). At least until now.

What does the EU working paper really say?

Pending the decision that will be taken at the end of the talks (May 26th), let's clarify and understand what is really written in the document under discussion. First of all, the text clarifies that in regards to DOP and IGP, only a partial dealcoholization will be allowed. The practices of total dealcoholization, therefore, would remain the prerogative of varietal wines. A compromise, this, obtained to find a synthesis between the parliament that had rejected total dealcoholisation for PDOs and the Commission which, on the other hand, wanted to extend the practice to this type as well.

The solution found also regulates mandatory labelling requirements in which such products will be called wines, but with the specification of "dealcoholized" or "partially dealcoholized" and a clearly highlighted alcohol content.

Wines without alcohol: which practices are allowed?

In regards to the practices allowed for dealcoholization, in addition to those already in use, others are introduced (which will be the subject of a specific delegated act). In fact, in the original proposal dated 2018, the Commission considered partial vacuum evaporation, membrane techniques and distillation. Subsequently, the Comité vins intervened asking for more flexibility. And this is where the procedure that sparked the greatest controversy comes in question, the addition of water ("watering down the wine," in the words of Coldiretti), which in the text is referred to as restitution of water, or "reintegration of water." But what does this mean? In the normal dealcoholization process, that is, when the ethanol molecule is extracted, the water is removed to be reintegrated afterwards. In fact, we read that "all authorised oenological practices exclude the addition of water, except where required for a specific technical need or, in the case of wine products which, due to the dealcoholization process, suffer a loss of water."

The position of Brussels: "Never talked about watering down wine"

Meanwhile, from Brussels, after the media fuss that has broken out in Italy, clarifications arrive: "The European Commission has never proposed to water down the wine, but simply to modify the EU legal framework to allow the development of alcohol-free wines, that is with a lower alcohol content than wine proper, products for which there is a growing demand and which could represent an interesting opportunity for the sector ”explained Commission spokesman Balazs Ujvari. According to the spokesperson, in fact, “consumer demand for wines with a lower alcohol content has increased significantly in recent years. In its proposal for the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy of 2018 "continued Ujvari" the Commission proposed to adapt the EU legal framework on wines to include this new and promising product. However, it should be noted that the Commission proposal makes no reference to adding water. A legislative negotiation is underway and we hope that the co-legislators will support this approach, to the benefit of the entire EU wine sector."

Wines without alcohol. UIV and Federvini are in favour: "Better to regulate the dealcoholized considering them as wines"

For Uiv Secretary General Paolo Castelletti it's even important that these new categories remain within the wine products: "There is a whole market that requires these products, from Muslim countries to Northern Europe: bring them within the family of wine products would mean both controlling the method of production (starting from the classic production of wine and not grape juice or other; Ed.), and hitting new markets. If, on the other hand, you leave them as "beverages" to the world, they would be subject to Reg. 1169/2011 and prey of other industries, thus becoming competitors." Moreover, Castelletti does not understand the media fuss that has been created around the issue: "There is nothing new: for years there has been talk of regulating the sector. Currently, Italy produces 50 million hectoliters of wine, half of which is common wine. Part of this doesn't have proper value and sale know-how. If this category gains space among consumers, it will be our bottlers who will earn something, rather than the food or beverage industries, such as Pepsi or Coca Cola." In short, it's better to enter the business, rather than stay out of it or even suffer from it. "For the Doc organs, little would change," concludes UIV secretary, "since it would only be a partial dealcoholization which would still have to pass through the modification of individual regulations: there's no imposition from above."

Federvini shares the same opinion: "We consider it a necessary and useful step. In addition," President Sandro Boscaini points out "the EU maintains that practices must be regulated within the wine legislation: thus we remain bound by the important European legislative parameters also in terms of oenological practices and presentation. The risk of seeing dealcoholized PDOs is non-existent unless the producers decide to change their specifications: confirming that the producers remain the guardians of the characteristics of their appellation."

Alcohol-free wines. The opposition: "Don't call it wine"

The other front is less open to the possibility, highlighting the serious precedent that would ensue and pointing the finger above all at the aforementioned "watering down" practice. Coldiretti, who was the first to sound the alarm last week, continues its battle against the practice: "In this way we're allowed to call wine a product in which the natural characteristics are completely compromised due to invasive treatment that breaks up the centuries-old process of transformation of grapes into must and then into wine. A legalised deception for consumers," worthy of the Roman song "La società dei magnaccioni," (society of exploiters) jokes President Ettore Prandini. For the President of Assoenologi, Riccardo Cotarella: "Adding water to wine is pure madness. We are very much against it," he told Ansa.''At least they have the common sense not to call it wine. I advise that in Brussels they consult the producers and we oenologists before proposing this kind of law."

"An idea to be rejected without hesitation" echoes Floriano Zambon, President of Città del Vino. "We will strongly oppose this hypothesis which aims to distort a product that boasts centuries of history and oenological practices and which only favours the interests of economic groups and multinationals disconnected from our territories."

Alleanza Cooperative also supports the cause: "You cannot call wine a product that's very far from the original and in which includes the addition of water," urges President Luca Rigotti. "This is an error that would completely distort the characteristics of a product with a millenary tradition, as well as constituting a lack of transparency towards the consumer. While agreeing on the opportunity that these rules find space in the wine sector's regulations and while not against low alcohol content wines per se, considering that they represent a commercial opportunity, especially in some countries," concludes Rigotti, "our position is that these products should be called differently, for example wine-based beverages."

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