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Low and alcohol-free wines: Italy awaits legislation as market grows

In the EU production is already possible, but not in Italy, with producers forced to knock abroad. The point of Unione Italiana Vini

Many people don’t like them. For some, starting with the Minister of Agriculture, Francesco Lollobrigida, they should not even be called “wines”. Yet, low-alcohol or alcohol-free wines are a small piece of the beverage market’s present, and they are destined to grow. And though a few Italian-signed labels are emerging, there is still a huge vulnus for Italian producers, namely the fact that although the European Union has long had its own reference legislation on the subject, Italy has not yet transposed it. “And so, despite important work that has allowed us to maintain the scope of so-called alcohol-free wines in the Wine CMO, Italian producers cannot play on equal terms with others. Because the wineries of Italy that want to invest in this niche market, which may not please wine lovers, but which does exist, are forced to go and buy or have their low-alcohol wine produced abroad, with the added value that, therefore, in part, is dispersed”, points out, to WineNews, the secretary of Unione Italiana Vini (Uiv), Paolo Castelletti. And, it was precisely Unione Italiana Vini, under the direction of Elisabetta Romeo, that took stock of the situation in recent days at Sana, also staging a tasting of low and no-alcohol products from leading Italian brands, such as Zonin1821, Hofstatter and Schenk.
To date, according to the EU Regulation 2021/2117, it has authorized and regulated the production and marketing of partially alcohol-free wines in the European Union. It distinguishes, meanwhile, between total dealcoholisation, which covers products for which the actual alcoholic strength of the product is not more than 0.5%; and partial dealcoholisation, if the actual alcoholic strength of the product is more than 0.5% and less than the minimum actual strength of the category preceding dealcoholisation.
With the peculiarity that, for PDO and PGI wines, only partial dealcoholisation is allowed. Which, today, can be done by three methods: partial evaporation under vacuum (which, on the one hand, produces dealcolated wine, and, on the other hand, vegetation water rich in alcohol, from 30% to 40% and more); by membranes (which, in addition to wine, gives rise to a net water with almost zero alcohol concentration, between 0.3 and 0.5 alcoholic degrees); by distillation. But one sticking point (and for many still not reached) is that dealcolation processes, whatever they may be, must not result in organoleptic defects in the product. While, of course, the words “dealcoholised” or “partially dealcoholised” must be clearly distinguishable on the label, there are many issues still open, at the level of European Union regulations. At present, for example, although dealcoholated wine is part of the large family of wine products, it is not possible to produce it with organic certification, but that may not be about to change. Again, it is basically not possible to make blends between a dealcolated product and a non-dealcolated one, nor can the enrichment of a dealcolated wine by adding sugar to the must be used.
If this, as said, is the European framework, in Italy, explains the presentation of Unione Italiana Vini (Uiv), “some points of the Testo Unico do not allow Italian wine companies to start production in wine establishments. It is forbidden-for exemple-the detention of certain substances in oenological establishments, which, in the specific case of alcohol-free wines, should be regulated. The temporary detention of alcohol produced by the dealcoholisation process before it is denatured and that of water obtained during the same process should also be allowed”. On these and other issues, the Ministry of Agriculture has recently sent an outline of a decree on dealcoholised and partially dealcoholised wines drawn up following discussions with the Customs Agency and the Icqrf (Inspectorate for Quality Control and Fraud Repression).
Among the most sensitive points, reported by Unione Italiana Vini (Uiv) the draft decree provides that “endogenous water obtained from dealcoholisation processes carried out by distillation or partial evaporation can be recovered provided that the reuse takes place within the dealcoholisation process, operating continuously and automatically in a closed circuit”; that “the dealcoholisation process can only take place in establishments with a tax warehouse license for the production of alcohol”; that “until the implementation of a specific telematic functionality, individual processes must be communicated in advance within the fifth day prior to their execution by Pec to the territorial offices of the Icqrf and the Customs and Monopolies Agency according to competence”. Looking, therefore, to a regulation that the Italian wine sector hopes will arrive as soon as possible, the issue of dealcoholic wines is particularly sensitive, in a market scenario and social customs that is changing in every corner of the world, and that is moving toward an ever decreasing consumption of alcohol, net of more or less restrictive policies, or more or less aggressive communication campaigns on the subject.
On the other hand, recalls Elisabetta Romeo’s presentation, “in countries that have traditionally been the biggest consumers, annual per capita consumption tends to decline. In 2022, according to Wine Intelligence, a third of consumers want to decrease alcohol consumption in the United States; 36% in Japan; 56% in Australia; and 58% in Switzerland. According to elaborations by the Wine Observatory of Unione Italiana Vini (Uiv), based on data from the World Bank, per capita alcohol consumption has decreased by an average of 3.2% per year in Italy, 1.8% in the United Kingdom, 1.4% in France and the Netherlands, and 1% in Germany. Moreover, worldwide, 50% of the population does not consume alcoholic beverages for religious reasons or because they do not consider them in their diet. This percentage is emblematic of the potential of the alcohol-free wine market”. Again, from so many market surveys, there are so many consumer profiles that are potentially targets for these products. Such as young people between the ages of 18 and 25, who are increasingly actively seeking alternatives to alcohol, and dealcoholic wine allows them to celebrate and have fun without losing control of themselves and without risking committing an offense, as, for example, in the case of drunk driving. In addition, 60% of Generation Z youth believe that they do not like the side effects of alcohol, and that it is necessary to be able to maintain control of one’s actions under all circumstances. Still, special interest in dealcolate beverages is shown by women between the ages of 25 and 40, and among people over 60, as well as those with special health conditions, such as diabetes or liver disease, pregnant women, and athletes.
Against this backdrop, the alcohol-free wine market is still a marginal sector in the non-alcoholic beverages field, Romeo recalls, largely dominated by beer, whose producers have been moving toward dealcoholisation for years. In 2021, the alcohol-free market was worth 7.5 billion euros, including 322 million euros for partially or fully alcohol-free wine. By 2025, the global dealcolation market could have a total value of $30 billion, of which 80% will be non-alcoholic beer. However, the expected growth for wines, flavored and non-flavored, will be between +7% and +10% per year, in all regions of the world.
In the same period, the prospects for annual growth of “classic” wine consumption are only 1%. If we consider dealcoholic wines by category, sales of partially or fully dealcoholic still wines grew by 13% and sales of partially or fully dealcoholic still wines grew by 5.6% in the 2018/2023 period. At the EU level, however, according to a study by the European Commission, it emerges that, as in the rest of the world, as of today, fully or partially alcohol-free beer takes the lion’s share, with 97% of the market in volume and 93% in value, or 7.5 billion euros and 2.5 billion liters. The market for partially or fully alcohol-free wines accounts for 322 million euros and 42 million liters, with sparkling wines accounting for 70% of the total in both value and volume. The main markets are France (166 million euros), Germany (69.3 million euros), Italy (30.6 million euros) and Spain (15 million euros). Flavored wines, on the other hand, represent a value of 16 million euros and a volume of 2 million liters (0.3% in volume and 0.6% in value). The main consuming countries are France (7.6 million euros), Spain (4 million euros) and Germany (1.5 million euros).
Small numbers, to date, if you look only at wine. But, evidently, destined to grow. And, it comes to say, given that most of the world's producing countries, France and Italy in the lead, are experiencing a historical phase in which there is talk of overproduction and funds allocated for crisis distillation (200 million euros of public funds, between the European Union and the state, in 2023 alone, in the case of France), alcohol-free wine, although not beloved by purists, may be a piece of the complicated solution to the problem that, moreover, would not cost a penny to the coffers of Europe and its member countries.

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