Non-Alcoholic Wine vs Grape Juice – Understanding The Difference

We all know that wine starts life as grape juice and is then fermented to produce alcohol and turn it into wine.  However, if non-alcoholic wine has no alcohol, it’s not a surprise that some people ask what’s the difference between non-alcoholic wine and grape juice?

The simple answer is non-alcoholic wine is made by removing the alcohol from wine that’s been fermented allowing it to develop the complex flavours wine drinkers enjoy.  Whereas grape juice is about capturing the natural flavour of the grapes from the moment they’re crushed.  The result is both drinks end up with very different flavour profiles. 

I thought I’d find out more about how they’re made so that we can understand the impact there has on the flavours and drinking experience of both non-alcoholic wine and grape juice.

What is Non-Alcoholic Wine?

First thought explain what I mean by non-alcoholic wine. In the UK we’ve got some fairly complicated labelling laws that actually means non-alcoholic wine can only refer to grape juice that is used for ceremonial or sacramental ceremony’s. However, realistically most people haven’t read the UK labelling laws to understand the differences between terms like alcohol-free, low alcohol, non-alcoholic, dealcoholised or no alcohol.

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I’m going to assume that if you’re Googling non-alcoholic wine what you’re actually interested in is wine with very little or no alcohol.  To keep things simple, I’ll be writing about wines under 0.5%.

Does Alcohol Differentiate Non-Alcoholic Wine from Grape Juice?

Another common misconception about what differentiates non-alcoholic wine and grape juice is only one has alcohol. 

It’s often thought that it’s the small amount of alcohol found in non-alcoholic wines that means it’s labelled as wine and that having zero alcohol allows grape juice to be labelled juice.

This isn’t the case.

Like a lot of fruit juices, grape juice also can contain small amounts of alcohol.  This occurs because natural yeasts in the air can get into the grape juice and begin fermenting to produce alcohol.  The faster production processes avoid this fermentation developing anywhere near as much as wine and other include steps to stop this or remove alcohol, but some grape juices will contain trace amounts of alcohol.

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How much alcohol?  Researchers in Germany showed it could be up to 0.86% in some of the samples they tested, so higher than the 0.5% limit for dealcoholised wine.

What is Grape Juice? 

Grape juice is exactly what you think it is – the juice from crushed grapes. There are many different ways to get juice from grapes but most common involves crushing the grapes and heating them to extract the most flavour before cooling down and storing. Commercially available grape juices can often go through clips a process of pasteurisation.  This removes the naturally occurring yeasts and moulds within the grapes before the juice is packaged for sale.

You can even make your own at home relatively easily if you start with a lot of grapes and some patience.

Whether it’s commercially available or homemade grape juice, the goal of these different processes is always the same – to capture the natural flavour of the grapes within a juice.  

Grapes Being Held Before Making Wine or Grape Juice

How Non-Alcoholic Wine Is Made 

Non-alcoholic wine is made the same way as wine, just with one extra step at the end of the process.  First the grapes are crushed to release the juice ready for fermenting.  At this stage, the colour is similar for all wines (and not dependent on the colour of the grapes used).

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What happens next is defined by the desired colour of the wine being made:

  • White wines – the skin and seeds are removed before fermentation. 
  • Red wines – skin seeds left in the wine during the whole fermentation process. This is why red wine is better for you and can lower in blood pressure.
  • Rosé wines – the seeds & skin are left in for some of the fermentation before being removed. The length of time there left in place decides this how deep the pink colour if the wine will be.

The fermentation can vary from days to months, depending on the wine and it’s during this time the natural sugars (and any that are added) are converted by the yeast into alcohol.  Once the fermentation in finished, the wine will be aged to develop its unique flavours.

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At this point you have wine this just like any traditional alcoholic wine, but now the final step that differentiates non-alcoholic wine need to be completed – removing the alcohol. 

Removing Alcohol to Make Non-Alcoholic Wine

Alcohol is removed from wine using one of three different methods:

  • Spinning Cone – the wine is gently spun in a tower of upside-down cones that allow the alcohol to be separated from the aroma and body of the wine. 
  • Reverse osmosis – filtration done on the molecular level that separates the wine so the alcohol can be removed before the elements are blended back together.
  • Vacuum Distillation – by using a vacuum chamber, wine is boiled far lower temperature to evaporate off the alcohol.

Once the alcohol has been removed the wine is ready, although in some wine makers will take this opportunity to blend the wine to further perfect its flavour.

Flavours: Alcohol-Free Wine vs. Grape Juice

Whilst both drinks start life as grapes, the way they’re made ensure they have completely different flavour profiles.  Grape juice is made to capture the flavours of freshly pressed grapes and keep the flavour as it naturally occurs.  For alcohol free wine, it’s very different.

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Where the wine is given time to ferment, the alcohol produced gives the wine a completely different flavour profile. This is caused by the sugars being broken down by the yeast to produce alcohol which generates far more complex flavours. By converting the sugars into alcohol, the wine will also be less sweet as it now contains less sugar.

However, one of the problems alcohol-free wine makers have is that in removing the alcohol, they risk removing some of the flavours contained within the wine.  For this reason, an alcohol-free version of a wine may taste different to the original alcoholic version.

Other Effects of Removing the Alcohol

Another impact that most people notice when first drinking a non-alcoholic wine is the lack of warmth in the mouth feel.  This sensation comes from the alcohol in wine, like a watered down feeling of the burn from drinking strong spirits.  It’s absence is more noticeable in alcohol-free wine than alcohol-free beers because wine is normally 10-15% instead of beers 3-5%.

Another difference some wine drinkers notice is a lighter body in the wine, which again can be lost during the alcohol removal stage.  One trick some alcohol-free winemakers use to replace the missing body is to add sugar at the blending stage after the alcohol is removed.  Whilst this adds back some of the body, it can lead to some alcohol-free wines being high in sugar. 

Sugar: Alcohol-Free Wine vs Grape Juice

Without sugar, grapes wouldn’t be so delicious and winemakers wouldn’t use them as the starting point for their wines.  With 100g of grapes containing 1.5.g of sugar, it’s little surprise that both the grape juice and alcohol-free wine contain sugar.

Sugar in Alcohol Free Wine and Grape Juice

With sugar being added to some non-alcoholic wines, you sometimes have to be mindful of how much sugar you’re drinking. Some non-alcoholic wines can be extremely low with this little as 3.6g of sugar per glass, but other can contain up to 18 grammes of sugar.

In comparison, grape juice will contain the 15g of sugar naturally found in grapes, plus any extra that may be added in the manufacturing process (keep an eye out the no added sugar labels).  The juice will contain more sugar as most of the sugar in the alcohol-free wine will have been converted to alcohol during the wine making process.  It’s only the sugar blended back into the wine at the end which will lead to high sugar levels.

Why Non-Alcoholic Wine and Grape Juice are Different 

Both grape juice and non-alcoholic wine start life as fresh grapes, but those grapes go on very different journeys to deliver two distinctly different drinks. While modern manufacturing of grape juice may be complex, the outcome is far simpler – it’s all about capturing the natural flavour of grapes in the juice.

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Non-alcoholic wine goes on a longer journey that is all about developing new and more complex flavours. By going through the fermentation process and allowing alcohol to develop within the grapes, a completely different flavour profile is produced – one that’s more intricate and far richer.  It becomes a drink that’s there to be savoured and enjoyed, instead of the quick refreshment of fruit juice.

Next time you hear someone ask what’s the difference between non-alcoholic wine and grape juice? you can simply answer everything

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