Before heading into the kitchen, we sampled both red and white versions of two national brands of dealcoholized wine, Ariel and Fre. Neither brand had the complexity of real wine, but the Fre red and white beverages were a step up from mere grape juice. To find out what factors might contribute to the differences between the brands, we looked into how each producer removes alcohol from wine. Ariel uses a cold filtration process, repeatedly passing the wine along meshlike membranes to remove the alcohol. The resulting alcohol-free syrup is then diluted with water. Fre wines, on the other hand, are produced with a technique known as the “spinning-cone” method, in which the wine cascades down spinning, cone-shaped cylinders in a thin stream. Nitrogen gas is sprayed over this thin layer of wine to prevent any of the flavor compounds from becoming volatile and escaping. When the wine is subsequently heated to remove the alcohol, the nitrogen shield protects the flavors of the wine. In the end, the alcohol is reduced from 10 to 12 percent to 0.3 to 0.5 percent. Since some liquid evaporates in the process, a small amount of unfermented grape juice is added to the wine. Though sweet, wines that are dealcoholized with the spinning-cone method retain distinct wine aromas and flavors.
To see how the dealcoholized Fre would stand up to the real deal in cooking, we made our Sautéed Chicken Cutlets with Shallots and White Wine Sauce (January/February 2005) and our Daube Provençal (November/December 2005). While all tasters could easily detect the sweet and less acidic notes of the dealcoholized wine in both dishes, most thought it was still quite acceptable. When we added some lemon juice or wine vinegar to cut the sweetness, both dishes got near-universal compliments. If you want to avoid wine with alcohol, the only national brand we found that uses the spinning-cone method is Fre, which is made by Sutter Home.