Monday, April 03, 2006

Wine, Additives and Other Over-Manipulated Things

Didn't Pammy do a great job at the Junos?

Once again the nerdier contigent of blogland has wrapped its collective eggo around the question of manipulations and additives. The latest affront to the purists is the use of wood chips, a subject which follows closely on the heels of similar debates over the use of colorants, enzymes, sugars, artificial tannins, etc... I can’t wait for the arm wrestle over irradiated wine. The list is long and debating each intervention separately has proven to be a non-starter, it seems one either embraces what innovation offers or tends to denounce it. While I tend to the latter, I must agree with its proponents that there is a certain amount of ‘reactionarianism’ from the anti-additives school. So here is hopefully a more sober and less emotional treatment of the question than my previous effort.

Why use additives in the first place?

Whether due to vineyard failure or choice of wine style, the majority of these manipulations are used to compensate for inadequacies in our pre-fermented juice; chapitalization for the under-ripe, acidification and tannin adjustments for the conversely over-ripe. Aromatic yeast strains and other taste and aroma enhancers are used to give character to otherwise characterless grapes. Colour adjustments are more of a marketing question (red wine should be really, really, really red, no?) and tossing a bag of wood shavings into a barrel provides the winemaker with oak flavouring at considerable savings compared to actually paying for an oak barrel.

The reality of chapitalization is that the majority of French winemakers do it (some with more reticence than others). Now, not to point fingers, but in weaker years in France there are winemakers who are capable of producing great, perfectly ripe wine. These winemakers tend to work smaller plots of land and seem to be principled to the point that they are willing to make less wine in weaker vintages in the hope of making up for lost income in better vintages.

Conversely, we can almost take it as a given that the ‘very ripe’ new world style more often than not necessitates the addition of tartaric acid. This is true to the point that I have yet to meet a new world winemaker who does not use acidification. In fact, the ‘new world style’ seems to be dependent upon this intervention, or else the ripeness would have to be sacrificed for a better-balanced natural acidity. There is an awareness amongst many I have talked with that the wine still has to make sense; i.e., that toe-curling acidity in a 14.5% sauvignon blanc is an over-made-up caricature of whatever the Platonic Sauvignon Form should be.

Both chapitalization and acidification seem, on the surface, to be rather innocuous interventions — simply there to help bridge an imperfect reality with a desired potential. And, of course, one of these potentialities is a better bottom line as less-than-ideal grapes are integrated with the good in the fermenting barrel. It is within this context that one must examine the benefits and risks associated with these more debatable manipulations.

So what’s the problem?

There is only a problem if we believe that wine is generally better when it is manipulated as little as possible. Is what differentiates a good wine from a mediocre one dependent upon the subtle touches of nature (terroir) nursed by the light hand of the winemaker. And conversely, are these subtle influences suppressed by the excessive use of additives and manipulations? Th emost obvious example is that of climate and wether the natural balance between fruit and acidity can be as effectively copied via either chapitalization or acidification. And, while wood chips definitely add oak flavouring to wine, can the other desirable effects of barrel-aging also be simulated, or put differently, is barrel-aging substantively better than wood flavouring?

With respect to this entry-level wine, it is not unreasonable to assume that as the technology advances, so will the quality of the wine. That should normally be considered a good thing. However, as we move out of the supermarket category of wine, does employing this technology offer winemakers a competitive advantage over winemakers who are doing it without manipulations. If these additions and manipulations are cost-effective and substandard grapes can be worked into reasonable wine, this will put price pressure on the winemakers that live and work with what they harvest. If one is optimistic about the value of science, one can only assume that technology will make it easier and cheaper to produce decent wine for less.

Are the days numbered for winemakers who want to make inexpensive wines without the benefit of additives?
And as the technology gets even more precise, wine can, and will, be made with a particular flavour and aroma and colour and texture profile, one that is pre-determined before a grape is even harvested (or is this already happening?).

The question is what do we want and expect from our wine?

Harlan Estate, Grange, DRC, Petrus and other classic wines are what they are because of low yields, vineyard location and technique. Their magnificence is due to that curious bit of teamwork between man and nature. And while they do cost a fortune, at what price point do we expect our wines to stop emulating these grand wines; both in terms of selectivity in the vineyard, and skill in the chais? It strikes me that using these bottom feeders as models is not really the way to go.

Or do we simply want the best possible drink, no matter how it is produced, and for the cheapest price?


Anonymous said...

I have to agree that these short-cuts seem a little unfair on the outside, but at the same time, in day to day consumption, I want the best wine I can get for the least $$$. There will always be a market for traditionally made wines, even for the Grange and Petrus, the world will always have its purists. These short-cut wines will appeal to the masses who are looking for something with a certain pre-determined character, not to the connaisseur who is looking for something exciting, different, that extra little pizzaz you get out of a wine grown in a certain soil, facing the sun at the right time of day, harvested at just the right time, aged in oak barrels until the producer judges it perfect...One need only look at the resurgence of the organic wine industry. It's harder, more expensive, and less rewarding in volume to produce a wine without the use of pesticides and fertilizers, yet around the world we see producers doing it, and people are willing to pay.

ann said...

as a "recreational" drinker of wine, how will this affect me? i think i know what i like (ie: i generally purchase from regions and makers that i've tried before, but i love to experiment too)
mainly, i constrain myself by price point and in a pinch, i'll go out on a limb based on whether the wine comes from my favorite importer, but as a casual wine purchaser, how can i know that the wine i'm buying hasn't been "mucked about with"? that i'm buying wines that truly represent the makers vision and the region from whence it comes?
are they going to label these wines? or am i best off sticking to organic and "biodynamic" wines?

caveman said...

anon and ann,
This is a complicated issue and I struggled over this post. I think it goes beyond what 'purists' want. I think at the root of this question is what do we expect our wines to be and at what point do the additives and various manipulations go too far. I know of organic winemakers who chapitalize and good cali producers who acidity. I am still struggling over this issue.

Justin said...

To add to what the anonymous commenter stated, manipulation also becomes a very atractive option for a producer of a mass market wine who is looking to maintain *consistency* year after year.

Yes, that $12 bottle of XYZ Chardonnay may have a vintage on it, but really only because that is what the customers expect. They drink it because it tastes good to them and they want it to keep tasting good next year as well, regardless of what year is on the bottle. The vagaries of vintage do not interest these consumers. Keeping these consumers does interest the winemakers.

We will see more and more manipulation as time goes on because it is in the financial interests of the makers of these wines to do so.

Mithrandir said...

Wine is a product sold in a free market. Right now, it is experiencing many of the changes that have occured in other industries since the mid-19th century: technology is eclipsing craftsmanship as a means to achieve quality.

Once upon a time, the best manufactured goods were made by the most skilled workers. At some point, that changed. New manufacturing techniques made it easy for unskilled workers to produce better product than the very best skilled workers using old techniques.

As a result, you can buy a reasonably sturdy desk at Ikea for like $30. But if your desk is important to you, you can still splash out hundreds or thousands of dollars for hand craftsmanship. There is still art in furniture making - it's just not the norm.

I predict that the same will happen in the wine industry. The low to medium end will be dominated by "tweaked" juice. But the low to medium end will become more affordable, and higher quality than it is today. You'll be able to buy decent wine for low prices. You'll also still be able to buy high-end, unmanipulated wine.

Whether this is a good thing or not is a matter of personal preference. But this is the future. It's happened almost everywhere else already.

caveman said...

Thanks for the comments Justin. Agreed that vintages at this level do not matter all that much.
Never a lack of interesting things to say. Welcome back. I agree with you that it seems as an inevitability though much of the mass produced goods tend to be of a lesser quality than many of the 'handcrafted' goods that they replaced. Like that Ikea desk, we are now accustomed to 'reasonable' quality. But we do live in a disposible society and tend to quantity over quality.. hell I know who people who exchange cars after 3 years simply cuz they are bored with it.
I guess my question is wether it is more important to have the best possible product for the cheapest price possible, or should we spend a little more, consume a little less and buy better.
My fear is that the only way to get 'untweaked' wine in the future will necessitate spending alot more money than we do now simply because those producers will have been squeezed out of the market by a whole lot of 'reasonable,' if not exciting wine.

Iris said...

I think that as long as there are people who prefer "slow food" and "slow drink", there is hope. And your articles help to remind this attitude to your readers! Thanks.

ann said...

what a great way of thinking about wine "slow wine"
i think you've just coined a phrase that must be used far and wide!

beau said...

Well, maybe not coined - perhaps expanded ;-)

"Like the Piedmont’s slow food ethos, Barolo is a slow wine. It requires patience, which is something most American diners are not known for."

Iris said...

Thank you, Beau, for citing this article (which I haven't read before, not knowing the it yours?). What a pleasure to see, that other people too like "slow drinking". And I think it's quite normal to talk about it in connection with Piemont wines. Nebbiolo too is a grape variety, which needs time to express it's best and also patience on the buyers/drinkers side.

BoxWineGuy said...

Great post - a very thoughtful discussion of a topic that will only become more important. I think the majority of wine consumers will be most interested in taste, with little regard to organic purity. Some consumers, as with food, will opt for a higher level of purism.