Europe's approach to low-alcohol wine production

The European Commission's new framework for low-alcohol wines


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In recent years, the European wine industry has confronted a paradigm shift influenced by the growing consumer demand for healthier and lower-alcohol beverage options. This shift reflects broader trends towards health-conscious consumption and a reevaluation of drinking habits across various demographics. The European Commission's latest clarification, as published in the Official Journal of the European Union on January 15, 2024, marks a significant step in the regulatory adaptation to these trends, setting out a comprehensive framework for the production, labeling, and marketing of non-alcoholic and partially de-alcoholized wines within the European Union.

The Commission's communication addresses the technical and quality standards that must be adhered to during the ethanol removal process from viticultural products. A key provision outlined is the prohibition against increasing the sugar content of the grape must, ensuring that efforts to reduce alcohol content do not compromise other fundamental aspects of wine, such as its natural sweetness or flavor profile. This directive underscores the delicate balance the industry must navigate in maintaining the integrity and traditional qualities of wine while innovating to meet changing consumer preferences.

Moreover, the regulation provides detailed criteria for the introduction of "partially de-alcoholized" wines into the market. Specifically, such wines must possess an alcohol content greater than 0.5% and less than 8.5% to 9%, varying slightly based on specific criteria. This range aims to establish a clear distinction between traditional wines, partially de-alcoholized wines, and other low-alcohol beverages. The term "partially de-alcoholized" must be prominently displayed on the label, promoting transparency and allowing consumers to make informed choices.

The communication also delves into the nuanced regulations surrounding the blending of fully alcoholized wine with non-de-alcoholized wine. The classification of the resultant product hinges on its final alcohol content; if it falls within the 8.5-9% threshold, it may be labeled as "wine." However, if the alcohol content is below this range, the product cannot be marketed under the "wine" designation, not even as "partially de-alcoholized wine," since the reduction in alcohol content results from blending rather than direct de-alcoholization.

An area of particular interest is the explicit prohibition against de-alcoholizing sparkling wines, which, due to their unique production and consumption characteristics, face distinct regulations within this framework. Nonetheless, the labeling can include vintage year or grape variety, provided the established conditions are met.

Furthermore, the Commission advises producers of wines with Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) and Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) interested in exploring partially de-alcoholized wine production to anticipate such innovations in their production regulations. This means any de-alcoholization innovation within these wine categories must be planned and agreed upon at the governance level of each denomination, ensuring the preservation of quality standards and the specific characteristics that justify their geographical protection.

This regulatory development reflects the evolving consumer preferences toward healthier and lower-alcohol beverage options, while establishing a clear framework for innovation and adaptation within the European viticultural industry. The emphasis on label transparency and the adherence to wine traditions and quality are principles the Commission aims to uphold in this new production and consumption landscape of wine, balancing innovation with the preservation of the rich viticultural heritage that defines European wines.

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