In this week's Premium Edition:
In an age of "cult" wines and collectibles, can a top-rank, ageworthy California Cabernet be found in the $40 mid-range? I'll report on a fine one in this week's Wine Advisor Premium Edition, which goes out to subscribers tomorrow. This biweekly E-letter makes it easy to shop with confidence when you're considering a more pricey bottle for a special occasion ... and your subscription helps support WineLoversPage.com. Subscribe today!
Wine without alcohol
You're on the job, forbidden to partake of alcohol even in moderate amounts. You're on prescription medication that warns against mixing pills and booze. You're the designated driver. Or, for whatever reason, you just plain don't feel like having an alcoholic drink today.
Is non-alcoholic wine an acceptable option?
First introduced to the marketplace about 20 years ago, "de-alcoholized" wine is typically made by fermenting grapes to make wine the old-fashioned way, with alcohol; most of the alcohol is then removed by any of a variety of high-tech or low-tech processes, yielding a result that - in theory at least - is more akin to real wine than to unprocessed grape juice.
Note that I said "most of the alcohol" is removed. These de-alcoholized beverages are usually labeled as "less than 1/2 of 1 percent alcohol," in contrast with the 11 to 14 percent alcohol content typical of standard wines. This alcoholic content is low enough to exempt the product from alcoholic-beverage regulation in most jurisdictions, and producers often point out that fresh-squeezed orange juice may contain similar amounts of alcohol through natural fermentation. But those who wish to avoid all alcohol for health or religious reasons should be aware that a tiny bit remains.
More to the point, how is the wine? Back in the middle 1980s, I tasted the then-available brands of de-alcoholized wines in "blind" competition against similarly priced regular wines, and I found them frankly appalling. White and sparkling de-alcoholized wines were bland to the point of being water-like; a red "no-alcohol" wine was outright disgusting, reeking of sulfur and rotting fruit.
Occasional follow-ups over the years yielded similar results, prompting me to label de-alcoholized wines "not recommended" in my Frequently Asked Questions lists.
It recently occurred to me, though, that modern advances in wine technology, such as the controversial "reverse osmosis" and "spinning cones" techniques that high-tech wine makers can use to manipulate wines in process - adjusting a wine's concentration, acidity or alcohol level to help correct some of nature's mistakes - might have been brought to bear to make better de-alcoholized wines for the 21st century.
I'm always willing to be fair, even when I'm being critical, so off I went to the wine shop for a representative no-alcohol wine, along with a somewhat similarly priced mass-market varietal wine to taste against it.
Cutting to the chase, a carefully arranged "blind" tasting left no doubt: De-alcoholized wine simply isn't a match for even a low-end competitor. The de-alcoholized Ariel 2001 Cabernet Sauvignon (made by the otherwise respectable J. Lohr) was easy to pick out in an unmarked glass: Grapey but not wine-like, it was spoiled by rubbery-chemical aromas and overripe, grapey fruit flavors that would mar any wine. In this company, the mass-market Fetzer Vineyards 2000 "Valley Oaks" California Cabernet Sauvignon stood out for its clean, fresh, varietally correct aromas and flavors. It might not be a cult classic collectible, but I wouldn't turn down a glass. (Detailed notes below.)
My FAQ on no-alcohol wines remains unchanged, as follows: It's my opinion that three issues are at work here. First, the de-alcoholizing process is intrusive and seems to damage the wine, even though the makers claim otherwise. Second, alcohol is a key component of the customary flavor (and texture) profile of wine, and wines without it usually seem lightweight and thin. Finally, to be blunt, with or without alcohol, these are inexpensive wines made from marginal grapes.
My best advice to people who want to take a break from wine is to skip these near-wine beverages and go directly to more interesting and flavorful non-alcoholic alternatives: Fresh fruit juices, sparkling water, or quality, well-brewed coffee or tea.
TALK ABOUT WINE ONLINE
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Ariel 2001 "de-alcoholized" Cabernet Sauvignon ($6.50)
Dark reddish-violet in color, the aromas blend an aromatic perfume with spices and an underlying "chemical" character reminiscent of latex. Intensely grapey in flavor, soft and slightly sweet, over seriously offputting latex-rubbery notes. Not wine, but not grape juice either. A strange, unpleasant beverage that I frankly can't recommend as an alternative to wine. (July 22, 2004)
FOOD MATCH: Served with a rare ribeye steak as the standard foil for red table wines, but the food match is not sufficient to make this a palatable drink.
VALUE: Not recommended.
WHEN TO DRINK: Not for aging, if you drink it at all.
WEB LINK: Here's the Ariel Website:
FIND THIS WINE ONLINE: Look for vendors and compare prices for Ariel on Wine-Searcher.com,
Fetzer Vineyards 2000 "Valley Oaks" California Cabernet Sauvignon ($8.99)
This wine is cherry red in color, rather light in the glass. It offers clean, varietally correct Cabernet scents of blackcurrant and light herbal notes in the aroma, with fresh, straightforward black-fruit flavors that follow the nose. On the soft side but not flabby, possible threshold-level sweetness communicates itself as juicy black fruit, with acidity sufficient for balance. Simple but "correct," it's an easy sipping red, decent with food ... and it's real wine. (July 22, 2004)
FOOD MATCH: Fine with medium-rare grilled ribeye.
VALUE: My personal tastes might go more toward an earthy, acidic country French or Italian red at the price point, but I can't quibble with its under-$10 tag; some Web vendors offer it as low as $7, at which point it's a credible bargain.
WHEN TO DRINK: Plenty of fruit and sufficient balance to keep it from fading for a year or two, but it's not really a wine to cellar.
WEB LINK: Fetzer's Website requires visitors to state their birth date before entry, and denies entrance to those who claim to be under 21.
FIND THIS WINE ONLINE: Research Fetzer Valley Oaks Cabernet on Wine-Searcher.com,
The California Wine Club
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Tour de France:
It's the time of year again when I sit down with my friends at French Wine Explorers and make plans for future group tours of the wine regions of France. Over the past three years we've visited the Southern Rhone and Provence, Bordeaux and Burgundy and Champagne. (For my report on this year's tour, if you haven't seen it already, click to my Burgundy and Champagne Diary 2004,
We're thinking about doing another tour of the Rhone, both North and South, in June 2005, and I'll be telling you more about this as plans become more definite.
Meanwhile, for information in future planning, I would like very much to know what French wine regions you would most like to tour. Whether traveling on your own or in an organized tour group with French Wine Explorers and me, we'd like to know your preferences either way.
I've set up a "ballot" similar to our periodic Wine Lovers' Voting Booth so you can express your preference among eight major French wine regions. I hope you'll take a moment to participate by clicking to
For more information about French Wine Explorers and its tours, see
This week on WineLoversPage.com
Here are links to some of our recently published articles that I think you'll enjoy:
Wine Lovers' Discussion Group: What have we done?
Last Week's Wine Advisor Index
The Wine Advisor's daily edition is usually distributed on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays (and, for those who subscribe, the FoodLetter on Thursdays). Here's the index to last week's columns:
South to North (July 23, 2004)
Argentine Torrontes (July 21, 2004)
Reevaluating Chile (July 19, 2004)
Complete 30 Second Wine Advisor archive:
Wine Advisor FoodLetter: Agua fresca (July 22, 2004)
Wine Advisor Foodletter archive:
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Monday, July 26, 2004