Tannic Panic! Issue #34: Prohibition is BACK (For 31 Days)
Sip, savor, and survive: master "Dry January" with the best that non-alcoholic wines have to offer (hint: it's a bit of a mixed bag)
Well, well, well, if it isn’t a NEW YEAR. Welcome to the future, my sweet baby snifters!
It’s 2024, and Isaac and Zach have made the COLOSSAL mistake of letting me, Victoria, play in the Tannic Panic sandbox again. Don’t know who I am? Honestly, who cares – I’m here, you’re here, let’s chinwag about wine!
FAKE OUT. We’re actually here to talk about…not wine. Turns out, “Dry January” isn’t just a [insert sex joke here]; it’s a “reset” many people struggle through at the top of the year for a variety of health reasons.
So, what is Dry January?
It wouldn’t be a Victoria post without some absolutely meaningless historical context, so let’s talk about the origins of Dry January AKA Dry January Challenge AKA Sober January. (The New York Times would have you believe that people also call this month “Drynuary” – do not say this. You will look foolish and I can’t have that.)
Wikipedia points to 2013 as the first official “Dry January,” when Alcohol Change UK, a British charity and campaign group, encouraged people to abstain from alcohol for the first month of the year. But a little peek at Google Trends indicates the term is older than a fifth grader and can potentially be traced all the way back to your dad’s favorite period of history: World War II.
Apparently, in 1942, the Finnish government launched “Raitis Januar” for civilians to ration alcohol and support the war effort. But that delightful little morsel of info tasted apocryphal to me, and since I can’t find any validation beyond a handful of blogs, I refuse to say it under oath.
Simply put, Dry January refers to the practice of abstaining from drinking alcohol for 31 days, typically to help kick off a new year with healthier habits. There are more recent variations to this challenge, like “Damp January,” which emphasizes cutting back on alcohol in a more sustainable way versus going cold turkey. Another form Dry January takes is merely eliminating hard alcohol but continuing to drink beer and wine (ESPECIALLY WINE).
Dry January is a bit of a free-for-all at this point, but we love that for her!
What in the world is the point of this week’s newsletter?
Crucial to successfully completing Dry January (or Moist January or whatever) is understanding what makes you reach for the nectar of the gods, and if it’s habitual, finding alternatives to alcohol to sip on. So we at the Tannic Panic Braintrust™ have taken it upon ourselves to find you the very best non-alcoholic wine we could reasonably find.
But first, let’s talk science. (Immediately hands the microphone to Zach.)
METHODS & “SCIENCE”
The two primary methods for making non-alcoholic wine are vacuum distillation and reverse osmosis. Both processes start with a regular alcoholic wine and end with a “dealcoholized wine” with little to no alcohol (typically less than 0.5% ABV)
Reverse osmosis: Reverse osmosis separates the components of the wine through a filtration system using high pressure, and it tends to be less eco-friendly and more expensive than vacuum distillation. The process uses high pressure to force the wine through a membrane, creating two solutions: a syrupy “wine concentrate” and a combination of water and alcohol. The water/alcohol solution is heated to remove the alcohol and then reincorporated into the wine concentrate. This process is expensive and can filter out desirable flavors and aromas.
Vacuum distillation: Vacuum distillation involves gently heating the wine in a vacuum to evaporate the alcohol at a relatively low temperature (70-95ºF). This is possible because in a vacuum, the boiling temperature for the wine drops, so the alcohol can be removed without causing as much heat damage to the wine, making it the preferred method for dealcoholizing wine.
Role of alcohol in the characteristics of wine
We all know that the alcohol (aka ethanol) content of wine can give you a humble buzz, but what else is it good for? Alcohol in wine also plays a crucial role in the wine's structure, body, and flavor balance. This is achieved through the relationship between alcohol, acidity, tannins, and other components, which must be balanced to create an enjoyable drinking experience.
Dealcoholized wine is the most readily available form of non-alcoholic wine. It goes beyond simply bottling “varietal grape juice” and starts with fully vinified wine, followed by a careful process of alcohol removal that attempts (with varying degrees of “success”) to preserve the flavor characteristics of the wine to the extent that is chemically possible.
Aromas/flavors and body
Alcohol contributes to the volatile aromas and flavors of wine through its impact on aroma release and sensory perception. Generally, an increase in a wine’s alcohol content will cause the release of more volatile esters (a class of aroma/flavor compounds that are responsible for the primary fruit characteristics in wine), enhancing the “fruity aromas.”
In addition, alcohol content is generally considered the biggest factor in how you’ll perceive the “body” of the wine (and of the other people at the bar).
Finally, ethanol itself interacts with acids to form esters, which are largely responsible for the primary fruit flavors in wine.
IN LAYMAN’S TERMS: removing alcohol = removing aromas, flavor, and body.
Tannins and color
Tannins, found in grape skins, seeds, and stems, are essential in stabilizing anthocyanins and are largely responsible for the perceived astringency and bitterness in red wines. They are also a major part of what gives red wines their structure.
It is later in the wine fermentation process, when some ethanol is present in the fermenting grape juice, that most of the tannins in wine are extracted from the skins (this is why white wines are separated from the skins prior to fermentation).
IN LAYMAN’S TERMS: Dealcoholization removes tannins and color, making it inherently more disruptive to red wine than white.
What does this mean for you?
If you prefer full-bodied, highly structured red wines with pronounced tannins, you may find it more challenging to find a suitable non-alcoholic alternative, as these wine styles typically have naturally high alcohol by volume and the alcohol content of these wines plays a more crucial role in preserving the overall tannic structure, color and body of the wine. Conversely, those who enjoy crisp, refreshing white wines (still or sparkling) with naturally lower ABV and high natural acidity will have better luck finding a wholesome non-alcoholic substitute for this style.
… AND NOW FOR THE REVIEWS IN ORDER OF GOOD:
Profile: Ripe peach, guava, poached pears
Palate: Off-dry, light body, high acidity, long finish
This one really wowed us. It is very refreshing and delicious, and very much emulates the experience of drinking a sparkling wine. Ripe peaches and tropical fruits on the nose, really well-balanced with a creamy mousse.
Excellent choice for someone who wants the experience of drinking a great sparkling wine, without the alcohol — and to be honest, something we would gladly drink at a party, even if we weren’t avoiding the sauce.
Profile: Flint, rubber, green apple, lime, wax, hint of lanolin
Palate: Medium sweet, light body, high acidity, long finish
This one impressed immediately, as the first impression upon smelling it was that it was indeed a Riesling. It showed flint, rubber, green apple, lime, wax, and a hint of lanolin on the nose. It does tread the line, but this is MUCH closer to the real deal than to grape juice. Given the already low alcohol levels in many sweet Rieslings, it is not a huge shock that this delivered one of the best experiences of the spread.
A solid choice, especially if you don’t mind wines with some residual sugar.
Profile: Dried apricots, golden raisins, mildew (dissipates as wine opens), lemon, a little spice
Palate: Off-dry, light body, medium+ acidity, short finish
Pleasant to drink and very different profile than the Good Twin we tried, but in some ways it edges closer to a flavored sparkling mineral water with a splash of kombucha than a sparkling wine. Nonetheless, would gladly drink a glass in place of sparkling if practicing abstinence, and may be just what you’re looking for, depending on your palate.
Profile: Black olive, roasted cacao beans, decaying flowers, hint of black plum & black pepper on finish
Palate: Dry, light body, medium tannin, high acidity, medium finish
This one surprised right off the bat as it had a good amount of color pouring into the glass. It resembles cab, which is more than I can say for some mass market cabs out there that are not alcohol free. On the nose it immediately presents black olives and roasted chocolate, with some supporting notes of decaying flowers and a hint of black plum. The wine was very sour to taste which was almost a bit of a shock, but pleasantly surprised us with some real perceptible tannins, which are not all too common in dealcoholized reds. The body is very light with a watery texture, and the flavors are not very intense.
Certainly recognizable as wine rather than just glorified grape juice, and though we didn’t LOVE it, it merits a try-for-yourself, especially if you miss red wine and aren’t in the market for ethanol.
Profile: Sweaty sock (veers towards kombucha aroma after “opening up”), cat pee, sourdough, yeast, dried strawberry, decaying violet, cranberry juice
Palate: Dry, light body, low tannin, high acidity, short finish
Not totally bad, flavors are much less off-putting than the nose, primarily because there isn’t much of it. It is completely devoid of tannin structure, and very sour. It has some elements that might be construed as reminiscent of an alcoholic beverage (more kombucha than wine), but between this and a standard issue juice, you’re better off with the juice. It does not succeed in its attempt to stand in for the real deal.
Ariel Cabernet Sauvignon, Premium Dealcoholized Wine, California / $9
Profile: Artificial strawberry, skittles, cotton candy, fake vanilla, Ocean Spray cranberry juice cocktail
Palate: Off-dry to medium sweet, light body, low tannin, medium+ acidity
Ariel Vineyards (owned and operated by J. Lohr) used to be the non-alcoholic wine of choice for the childhood Tannic Panic boys (we’ve been doing this a looooong time LOL), but either things have gone way downhill, or we used to have TERRIBLE taste. This is the only red we tried that doesn’t shy away from some very perceptible residual sugar (each serving contains the equivalent sugar to about half a can of Coca-Cola), showing medium intensity aromas and flavors of artificial strawberry, skittles, cotton candy, artificial vanilla, and watered down cranberry juice.
If there was ever a time to do yourself a favor and buy a jug of juice instead of playing wino with mommy and daddy, this was it.
Whether you are dabbling in a few days of self-imposed prohibition, or just interested in exploring the rapidly developing landscape of dealcoholized wines, we hope these reviews and little drops of knowledge will give you a nudge in the right direction.
Until next time, happy drinking people.
Victoria! (and Isaac & Zach)
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