De-alcoholized wines, Coldiretti against Italian farmers and winemakers

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dealcoholic wine

The reform of the CMO in wine introduced two years ago the opportunity to produce and market ‘dealcoholised’ or ‘partially dealcoholised’ wines, but in Italy the policies led by Coldiretti once again work against Italian farmers and wine growers. A closer look, on the eve of Vinitaly 2024. #VanghePulite.

1) De-alcoholized and partially de-alcoholized wines

Regulation (EU) 2021/2117 – in addition to introducing new labeling requirements for wines, providing for information (albeit by means of an electronic label) on the list of ingredients and nutritional values – has introduced uniform rules on dealcoholised and partially dealcoholised wines, as we have seen. (1)

The removal (total or partial) of alcohol from wines can be achieved by partial evaporation under vacuum, use of membranes for filtering ethyl alcohol and/or distillation. Provided that the wines thus obtained have no organoleptic defects and there is no increase in the sugar content of the original grape must.

The two categories of products are distinguished as follows:

– de-alcoholized wine, actual alcoholic strength of the product not exceeding 0,5% vol

– partially dealcoholised wine, effective alcoholic strength of the product exceeding 0,5% vol. and lower than the minimum effective alcoholic strength of the category preceding dealcoholisation.

1.1) Labeling

Labeling requirements of de-alcoholized and partially de-alcoholized wines, already partially clarified in the guidelines of the European Commission, include:

– the use of the term ‘de-alcoholized’ or ‘partially de-alcoholized’, close to the designation of the category of wine products (including PDO and PGI wines)

– the indication of the minimum shelf life (‘best before’) which, by way of derogation, may also be indicated outside the same visual field (2,3).

2) Organic wine, a guilty discrimination

A question from the European Parliament at the beginning of the year highlighted a culpable discrimination against organic wine, which is excluded from the permitted technologies for distillation, in particular vacuum distillation (permitted for food, but not for wine). (4)

This serious legal gap has led to the impossibility of marketing organic dealcoholised wine in the Union. Where only a few Member States such as Germany – but not Italy, the world’s leading wine producer – have adopted transitional measures to allow these products to be marketed, albeit under the name ‘non-alcoholic beverage made from organic wine’.

Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski recognized the ‘forgetfulness’ of organic wine, mentioning the possibility of adopting a delegated act pursuant to Reg. (EU) 2018/848. The authorization of vacuum distillation as an oenological practice for the dealcoholization of organic wines – already suggested by EGTOP (Expert Group for Technical advice on Organic Production) and the experts of the individual Member States – is still awaited. (5)

3) Questions and answers

The European Commission has published a list of questions and answers, in an attempt to help operators and control authorities apply the new rules. (6)

3.1) Sugar enrichment of the must

The prohibition of addition of sugars in the must was confirmed, for dealcoholised wines only, as it was considered inconsistent to increase the alcohol content with a view to subsequent dealcoholisation. This provision was also introduced to align with Sheet 3.5.16 of the OIV (International Organisation of Vine and Wine) Code of Oenological Practices.

Sugaring is permitted in some Member States (e.g. Germany, France), and it has therefore been specified that the ban only applies to wines produced after the 2022 harvest.

An uncertainty remains however, regarding the possible sugar enrichment of grapes or wine during fermentation and refermentation (e.g. sparkling). The Commission argues that the prohibition also applies to these hypotheses, except that the Court of Justice of the European Union (CGEU) is the only official interpreter of EU law.

3.2) Blending and cutting practices

Blending of dealcoholised wines with non-dealcoholised wines cannot be considered a ‘blending’ practice carried out between different wines and, regardless, is in no way a permitted practice to obtain partially dealcoholised wines, so that dealcoholisation can only take place through permitted practices (see above).

The only exception concerns the blending of different batches of de-alcoholized wines.
Blending of dealcoholised and non-dealkalised wines therefore only allows the following products to be obtained

– non-de-alcoholised wines (wines), if the mixing results in an alcohol content of 8,5-9% or more

– alcoholic beverages other than ‘wine’ and ‘partially dealcoholised wine’. Provided that the alcohol content obtained is less than 8,5-9%, the beverage is designated by a different name and the information on the label describes its characteristics.

3.3) Production of dealcoholized sparkling wines

The technology does not yet allow for the production of dealcoholised sparkling wines, according to the Commission, because following refermentation it is unlikely to keep the alcohol content below 0,5%. This does not prevent the labelling of the product as ‘partially dealcoholised (sparkling) wine’.

It’s possible in any case, to label sparkling wines as ‘dealcoholised’ if carbon dioxide is added to a dealcoholised base wine.

Even in this hypothesis,according to Brussels, it would be technological practices that limit the production of these products, since the removal of ethanol is often associated with a reduction of carbon dioxide.

3.4) Unexpected reforms

No changes of delegated acts are foreseen to adapt the current provisions for wines (i.e. labelling) also for dealcoholised or partially dealcoholised wines.

The current legal framework would be complete – in the Commission’s view, notwithstanding the findings on organic wines – as it allows operators to indicate, in the same way as for wines, all the required information such as vintage and name of the variety.

In any case, please note the need to comply with the requirements of Regulation (EU) No 1169/2011, where necessary, in the absence of specific rules for the labelling of wine products.

3.5) Voluntary information

Voluntary information supplementing the terms ‘dealcoholised wine’ or ‘partially dealcoholised wine’ is permitted, subject to the Food Information Regulation (EU) 1169/11 and voluntary food information.

‘Zero alcohol’, ‘alcohol free’ and equivalent wording in other languages, for example, are permissible wording only for beverages containing 0% ethyl alcohol (subject to the tolerances set out in paragraph 3.7 below). In any case, the designation ‘dealcoholised wine’ must be stated on the label (in the same visual field as the quantity).

Nutrition and health claims in turn must comply with the applicable European standards. (7)

3.6) Oenological practices

Authorised oenological practices (EU Reg. 2019/934) are also permitted in the production of dealcoholised and partially dealcoholised wines. Such practices are ‘recommended’ to improve the quality of these products (e.g. sweetening, addition of carbon dioxide).

Dealcoholization of wines with an appreciable residue of fermentable sugars (before dealcoholisation) is also permitted, provided that:

– respecting the requirements for the designation

– adopting the correct practices for blocking fermentation, avoiding the development of an ethanol content that could lead to non-compliance with the indicated category.

3.7) Tolerances

The tolerances on the differences between the alcohol content declared on the label and that determined by analysis are ± 0,5% or ± 0,8%, depending on the case. (8). So for example, a wine de-alcoholized with 0,2% ethanol (analysis) can be labeled as 0% (under) or 0,5% (over).

The analytical determination of a value of 0.6%, however, entails the obligation to rename the product as ‘partially dealcoholised wine’, without tolerances. Consequently, a dealcoholised wine with an alcohol content between > 0.5% and <1% should always be labelled with at least 1% ethanol.

The indication of the alcohol content on the label of de-alcoholized and partially de-alcoholized wines is always mandatory, regardless of their content. The rules in question in fact prevail over the general ones (EU Reg. 1169/11), by virtue of the principle ‘lex specialis derogat legi generali‘.

3.8) DOP and IGP wines, partial dealcoholisation only

The production regulations of PDO and PGI wines may provide minimum alcohol content values. And yet, with regard to the categories established in the single CMO (EU Reg. 1308/2013, Annex VII, Part II), the lower alcohol limit also represents the maximum limit for partially de-alcoholised wines. (9)

These wines may therefore undergo only partial dealcoholisation, not also total dealcoholisation. Provided that the product specification is amended accordingly to include dealcoholisation among the permitted oenological practices and the characteristics of the product obtained.

3.9) Name ‘wine’

The name ‘wine’, followed by the words ‘dealcoholised’ or ‘partially dealcoholised’ is possible and legitimate. (10) Provided that the conditions laid down for the production of wine are met, and that dealcoholisation practices are subsequently adopted.

Wine that has undergone ethanol reduction > 20% but still meets the minimum requirements for a wine may not be marketed under the sales designation ‘wine’. In this case, the rules already described for blends of wine and dealcoholised wine must be followed, with a view to the marketing of a partially dealcoholised wine (see section 3.2 above).

3.10) TMC, ‘best before date’

It’s required, according to the European Commission, report the TMC (‘best before date’) on the label of both de-alcoholised and partially de-alcoholised wines. The methods for indicating the ‘best before date’ are indicated in Food Information Regulation (EU) No 1169/11 (Annex X).

The responsability to determine the ‘shelf-life’ remains, however, as seen, paid by the responsible operator. Which can be referred to the guidelines published by EFSA (European Food Safety Authority) in this regard. (11)

4) Coldiretti against Italian farmers and winemakers

Coldiretti had tried to oppose the pending reform of the wine CMO from the very beginning with grotesque rhetoric. Instead of realising the extraordinary opportunities for Italian farmers linked to the production of dealcoholised wines – also with a view to valorising products that do not conform to the strictest specifications of the various ‘nectars of Bacchus’ – Vincenzo Gesmundo and his followers recalled the Roman folk song. Falsely claiming that these were ‘watered-down wines’, i.e. adulterated and fraudulent. (12)

Antonio Tajani and the Italian representation of the European People’s Party (EPP) had immediately followed up, ça va sans dire, Coldiretti’s silly polemics. Deducing, in a special European Parliament question to the Commission, ‘inaccuracies’ such as the hypothetical ‘watering down’ of wine with residual distillation water. In an attempt to exclude the possibility of using the name ‘wine’ and in any case exclude PDO and PGI wines. (13)

5) Lollobrigida, another damage in sight for the protesting Italian farmers?

The agriculture minister ‘who stopped trains’ and tries to do the same to protesting farmers, Francesco Lollobrigida, could do yet another damage to Italian wine growers and winegrowers. After the disgraceful decree on the CAA monopoly, there is now the prospect of a measure that would restrict freedom of enterprise in this sector as well.

A draft ministerial decree containing provisions on the requirements for the production and marketing of dealcoholised wines, according to rumours, could in fact restrict dealcoholisation practices to distilleries only. The effects of this provision, if confirmed, are obvious:

– force the transport of significant volumes of wine, from producers to distilleries for dealcoholization, with return to the cellars for bottling

– thus unnecessarily increasing the production costs and environmental impact (Life Cycle Assessment, LCA) of the products. To the detriment of wine producers and their competitiveness on international markets, as well as consumers

– hinder innovation and income opportunities both for the numerous agricultural companies that grow grapes and produce wine, especially the smaller ones, and for machinery manufacturers.

6) Market opportunities

The University of Bologna, in a recent scientific publication (Yumar et al., 2024), highlights how de-alcoholized and partially de-alcoholized wines (‘zero-alcohol’ and ‘low-alcohol’) are increasingly attracting a growing audience of consumers:

– wine lovers who cannot consume alcoholic beverages due to specific prohibitions (i.e. driving, work) and medical prescriptions

– people who decide to give it up due to dietary and sporting needs, religious dictates, health choices. And it is essential, according to the researchers, that these products are comparable to the ‘alcoholic’ versions, in terms of sensory properties, to determine a greater ‘willingness to pay’ (WTP). (14)

A study produced by Areté and IHS Market (2023) also revealed how the generality of ‘no alcohol’ and ‘low alcohol’ drinks present great market opportunities, with particular interest in France and Germany especially for sparkling wines (70% of the volume and total value, respectively of €322 million and 42 million liters produced). (15)

Market trend for no alcohol and low alcohol wines in the EU, referring to the year 2021
Fig. 1 – Market trend of no alcohol and low alcohol wines in the EU, referring to the year 2021 (15)

7) Provisional conclusions

The inability of Coldiretti and the politicians in its service to understand the enormous potential of this market segment risks further aggravating the crisis of farmers and wine processors, who are already harassed by unfair commercial practices and sales below cost (widespread in cooperative wineries, illegally excluded in Italy from the application of Unfair Practices Directive EU 2019/633). (16)

Italian farmers must realise the need to rely on those who can truly protect their interests:

– at the associative level, freeing themselves from the bullying of the Coldiretti magic circle

– at the political level, with a protest vote in the upcoming elections for the European Parliament, on 6-9 June 2024. The writer is running in the North-East constituency (Emilia-Romagna, Veneto, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, provinces of Trento and Bolzano), with the will to address the concrete issues already set out in the program.

#PeaceLandDignity

Dario Dongo

Footnotes

(1) Dario Dongo, Giorgio Perrone. De-alcoholised wines, new EU rules and high growth potential. The ABCGIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 8.2.22

(2) The TMC must, however, be indicated for drinks with an alcohol content of less than 10%, pursuant to Annex X, point 1, letter d), third indent of the regulation. (EU) no. 1169/2011

(3) The exemption on the TMC is implemented pursuant to art. 40, paragraph 2, letter d) of the reg. (EU) 2019/33.

(4) Ralf Seekatz (EPP). EU Parliament. Marketing of non-alcoholic organic wine. Question for written answer to the Commission [E-000219/2024]. 24.1.24 https://www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/document/E-9-2024-000219_EN.html

(5) EU Parliament. Marketing of non-alcoholic organic wine. Answer given by Mr Wojciechowski on behalf of the European Commission. E-000219/2024(ASW). https://www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/document/E-9-2024-000219-ASW_EN.html

(6) Commission Notice – Questions and answers on the implementation of EU rules on the de-alcoholisation of wines (C/2024/43) http://data.europa.eu/eli/C/2024/694/oj

(7) Reg. (EC) 1924/2006, article 4.4. Nutrition claims relating to low alcohol content or the reduction or absence of alcohol or energy content in drinks that normally contain alcohol

(8) In the case of wine products with a protected designation of origin or protected geographical indication kept in the bottle for more than three years, sparkling wines, quality sparkling wines, aerated sparkling wines, semi-sparkling wines, aerated semi-sparkling wines, liqueur wines and overripe grapes

(9) E.g. PDO wine with a minimum alcohol content of 10% cannot be defined as partially de-alcoholised wine if its content is between > 8,5-9% and < 10%, but must always be < 8,5 -9%).

(10) Wines and partially de-alcoholized wines fall under CN code ‘ex 2204’, while de-alcoholised wines fall under CN code ‘ex 2202 99 19’.

(11) Dario Dongo. Expiry date and TMC, EFSA guidelines for the reduction of food waste. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade).

(12) EU: now Brussels wants to water down the wine. Coldiretti. 6.5.21 https://tinyurl.com/yyy6dwma

(13) Antonio Tajani (EPP), Isabella Adinolfi (EPP), Andrea Caroppo (EPP), Salvatore De Meo (EPP), Fulvio Martusciello (EPP), Giuseppe Milazzo (EPP), Aldo Patriciello (EPP), Massimiliano Salini (EPP ), EU Parliament. Classification of alcohol-free wines. Question for written answer to the Commission [E-002594/2021]. 12.5.21 https://www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/document/E-9-2021-002594_EN.html

(14) Kumar Y. et al. (2024). Dealcoholized Wine: A Scoping Review of Volatile and non-Volatile Profiles, Consumer Perception, and Health Benefits. Food and Process Biotechnology https://doi.org/10.1007/s11947-024-03336-w

(15) EU Commission et al. (2023). Study on low/no alcohol beverages – Final report. Publications Office of the European Union https://data.europa.eu/doi/10.2762/315469

(16) Dario Dongo. #AgricoltoriUniti, the manifesto 2 March 2024. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 27.2.24

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Dario Dongo, lawyer and journalist, PhD in international food law, founder of WIISE (FARE - GIFT - Food Times) and Égalité.