Water To Wine

Wednesday 2/17 the Santa Rosa Press Democrat published a column by Dan Berger titled “What’s really in that wine bottle?” (Thanks to Tyler Thomas at Pax — or is it Donelan now? — for the heads-up about the article via Twitter.) Anyway, the question Dan brings up is one of fraud, starting with the scandal over Gallo and the fake French Pinot that has lately been fermenting even in the mainstream media. Then he follows with the long-running non-story of the wealthy wine collector who has concluded that many of the rare bottles in his cellar are probably fakes, and is suing the people he bought them from (I recall reading about this guy first in The Billionaire’s Vinegar).

But Dan’s problem is not with the crimes of misrepresenting grape varieties, or forging old bottles of first-growth Bordeauxs. In a stunning twist of logic, he goes on to decry ordinary, common winemaking practices: additions of water, of concentrate and even of oak, which he feels “help to make wine in a way that robs it of the flavors of the grape and the soil that were once the soul of fine wine.” He certainly points out that these practices are legal, but after throwing out the red herring of the two frauds cited at the beginning, in the reader’s mind he leaves the impression that he believes these winemaking practices are equally criminal. Berger states that these practices have nefarious intent, which they do not in most cases. He also implies that such additions are something new, which they are not, begging the question of robbing what was once the soul of fine wine. This isn’t quite yellow journalism, but the premise is sensationalist and the conclusion is fallacious.

Most observers would agree that the style of wine which now dominates the high end of the wine rankings and price scale has evolved over the last couple of decades, toward higher alcohol, higher extract, higher pH and higher levels of new oak. One of the consequences of chasing these high scores is that many winemakers have insisted on leaving the fruit on the vine longer before harvest than before, often to the point that the grapes become partially dehydrated.

Some growers have complained that the wineries demanding riper fruit are simply cheating them, by waiting for dehydration to avoid paying for the full weight of the crop. It is certainly possible that a few grape buyers think this way, but I have never encountered anyone who does. However I do have plenty of experience with growers who refuse to thin their crop to reasonable levels, insist that they have to get the fruit off NOW even though it may not be physiologically ripe, and then water the vineyard heavily before picking to pump up the weights the winery has to pay for. It seems to me that the mindset that can rationalize this kind of behavior is the same one that would come up with the idea that waiting for dehydration is just an excuse to pay less for grapes.

In many vineyards, grapes are not truly ripe when the sugar level is just above the minimum contract specification. This is because sugar accumulation is only one component of grape maturation. The skins, pulp and seeds, as well as the acids and salts in the juice, each have maturation curves that are not strictly interdependent or coincident. The flavor of the fruit itself changes as the grapes mature. Fruit can be sweet but not taste ripe, and the evolution of the high-scoring style has put a premium on a flavor profile that tends to the over-ripe. Winemakers may be waiting for a physiological indication of ripeness other than sugar, or they may be waiting for a particular flavor, but they are not waiting simply in order to pay the grower a few percent less.

Bringing in fruit with high sugar content creates potential problems for the finished wine. The first is high alcohol: more sugar means more alcohol produced by fermentation. High alcohol in and of itself is not always a problem, but there is the elusive question of balance to be considered — some wines just taste wrong if the alcohol is too high. The second is the effect on yeast. Dan Berger acknowledges that high sugars can lead to stuck fermentations. I have written before on how high sugar and high alcohol can stress yeast to the point of distress, causing them not only to stop fermenting sugar but also causing them to produce toxins that can make the wine taste hot or that lead to allergic reactions or migraines in sensitive individuals. An uncorrected stuck ferment also means the wine is left with some residual sugar — not a bad thing in itself, as many consumers actually prefer their wines slightly off-dry, but a wine with residual sugar must be sterile-filtered or treated with Velcorin™ if the winery wants to avoid the economic disaster of having it re-ferment in the bottle.

Every vintage, Nature and man conspire to deliver us less than perfect grapes. In waiting for seed ripeness — which is my number one criterion for determining when to pick — the tradeoff may be a higher sugar level. It seems to me that adding some water to the tank is a very minor correction, by which one can avoid too-high alcohols, stuck ferments and their attendant negative effects on wine composition, and filtration or other sterilization. I utterly reject the notion that there is anything deceptive, underhanded or unnatural in this practice.

I expect that winemakers in hotter climates have always been adding a little water to their too-ripe tanks before fermentation. That water addition (along with irrigation) is outlawed in most Continental appellations suggests it has been practiced there as well. However, European vineyards receive more rainfall late in the season than we do here in California. Consequently most European appellation regulations allow addition of sugar before and during fermentation (which is prohibited in California) to bring the potential alcohol of the finished wine back into balance if Nature gives washed-out fruit.

Incidentally, it might be of interest to note that the family of Jean-Antoine Chaptal, Napoleon’s Minister of Agriculture, was well-founded in the production of sugar beets — not surprisingly, when “chaptalization” was first approved in France the practice was limited to the regulated use of beet sugar in wine production — another “triumph” of practical and economic interests.

Dan mentions additions of Mega Purple and Mega Red concentrates; to clarify — though these products are classified as grape concentrate and do have over 60% sugar, the wineries that use them do so primarily to increase color in the finished wine. Coincidentally, additions of the Mega products also leave the finished wine with a fraction of a percent of sugar, but as I mentioned above this can be a plus from the consumer perspective.

Like adding water, finishing a wine with residual sugar is hardly something new. Historically, the Romans added honey to wine and — unfortunately for them — also went so far as to heat wine in lead pots to sweeten the finish. Wines with stuck ferments have always been slightly sweet by definition. And it seems like it has been at least 20 years since the owner of one of the biggest wineries in California attempted to sue his ex-winemaker for absconding with a “trade secret” — which turned out to be nothing more complicated (or obvious) than the deliberate addition of a little concentrate to finish wines at a consumer palate-pleasing 1% or so of residual sugar.

Regarding oak — anyone who asserts that new oak is over-used in the modern quest for high scores will get no argument from me; to my palate many of today’s high-scoring wines are over-oaked. But it is nonsense to assert that the use of oak in itself compromises the “soul of fine wine.” To my thinking, the judicious refinement of wine in high-quality oak cooperage is the very practice which separates the fine from the pedestrian, and has been for centuries.

Each of the winemaking practices mentioned in Dan Berger’s column has been around nearly for as long as wine has been made. A time when wine was made “exclusively from fresh grapes” wasn’t just in the distant past — the very concept is a fairy tale, as Dan unconsciously implies when he invokes “once upon a time.” It is the stuff of myth, of the legends surrounding the discovery of wine by early civilizations. It has been the intervention of clever minds that has turned wine from an accident into a reliable and ultimately sublime beverage. Whenever I need to remind myself of this truth, against the clamor of voices espousing the fiction of “natural” wine and “non-interventionist” winemaking, I go back and re-read Hugh Johnson’s magnificent Vintage: The Story Of Wine (Simon and Schuster, 1989). Johnson’s history makes clear at every turn how wine has improved with man’s intervention.

That said, to my palate many modern wines do seem over-processed. Personally I tend to prefer wines that are made with the least necessary manipulation, and wines that are identifiable as coming from a particular place. I don’t often drink wines made in the modern international style, or reach for bottles I know to have been crafted to appeal to the widest slice of the consumer market. In this Dan Berger and I probably would find agreement. I simply do not agree with the implications 1) that legal winemaking practices are somehow fraudulent or meant to deceive the consumer, and 2) that winemakers like myself, who understand the value of careful intervention, are somehow offending against the soul of fine wine.

Berger wraps up his column with the line “[n]o wonder some people want to see a list of ingredients on all wine labels.” Back in 2008 I posted my opposition to a mandate for composition labels on every bottle of wine, though I support initiatives to make this information readily available to consumers. Like many, I myself want to know what goes into my food, and factor that knowledge into decisions I make about what to buy to feed myself and my family. Equally, it’s not enough for people who drink my wines to believe I have not committed fraud in my winemaking — I want them to be confident that I have not added anything unhealthy or unsafe to their bottle. Look for a post in the near future where I discuss exactly that.

3 thoughts on “Water To Wine

  1. Tyler Thomas

    John – Just found the blog! Love this post, well said. I liked your characterization of those “espousing the fiction of “natural” wine and “non-interventionist” winemaking.” I’m working on an article for the folks at Cork’D on the concept of “intelligent intervention” as opposed to the over used minimal or non-interventionist concept. I like seeing your response to Berger fleshed out here beyond the character limitations of twitter! Hope you’re feeling well!

  2. John M. Kelly Post author

    Thanks Tyler – good to hear from you here. The whole “non-interventionist” and “natural” winemaking hype is so last year. I appreciate that artisans like yourself are doing more to articulate the intelligent choices each of us has to make to produce our best efforts. Looking forward to seeing your Cork’D article. And yes, I’m getting a little stronger every day.

  3. Pingback: Water to wine | New World Wine Maker Blog | Discussing Winemaking in the New World today!

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