Ever wonder what’s in your wine?
Think that the oak and buttery nuances from your Chardonnay came from the slow oxidization of expensive French oak barrels? Think again. It’s from dusty oak chips or staves floating in a large stainless steel tank before your wine was bottled. This shortcut can partially hide flaws or “beef up” a wimpy (cheap) wine by imparting vanilla and toasty flavours from the wood chips without bearing the costs of labour and materials.
Love the deep hue of the Zinfandel swirling in your glass? Thank Mega Purple for that. Mega-who? You may not have heard of this grape concentrate or colouring agent; there’s a good reason it intentionally flies below the radar. Similar to the Russian Olympic team, winemakers are reluctant to discuss the use of “wine steroids.” When this “cheat” is added to cheap red wines, it has a way of homogenizing flavours and aromas, making wines taste very similar to one another.
Mega Purple is added for several reasons: 1) it softens the wine (due to the sugar content); 2) it can hide flaws; 3) it provides some texture to wines that may have suffered from a less than optimal growing season; and more importantly, 4) it plumps up the wine for a more “desirable” darker colour. Many consumers are caught up in the idea that the darker the wine, the better it is. Black fruit is better than red fruit. Heaven forbid if a bottle of Petite Sirah isn’t dark and inky!
Winemakers will also tinker around with additives and processes to achieve the desired taste in wines. Is that Sauvignon Blanc not zesty enough? Inject it with some tartaric acid. Is it too astringent and tart? Commence malolactic fermentation. Is that Shiraz not tannic enough? No problem, just throw in some powdered tannin. Too tannic? Fine it with fish stomach or egg whites.
Feel like you have been duped or cheated by your winemaker? You can’t blame him for using every tool in the toolbox to make the best possible tasting wine. After all, it is a race to gain popularity with the wine-drinking public and higher ratings from influential wine critics, which urges winemakers from all corners of the globe to use the same tools and creates so many wines that taste alike.
In a pursuit to make the best wine conceivable, some wineries have gone to the extreme by adding illegal additives. A winemaker in Southern Italy added methanol into his wine to increase the alcohol content, causing an uproar as 23 Italians died with many permanently blinded by alcohol poisoning.
In 2004, winemakers at a South African winery added vegetable flavourings to their Sauvignon Blanc. The winemakers manipulated the wine’s aroma — altering it to portray aromas of green pepper and fresh cut grass — to make it more marketable to the public. The wine received several awards before the fraud was discovered.
I apologize to all the grape nuts reading this. Perhaps ignorance is bliss. But, do we really expect to get a beautiful bottle of wine for under $10 that went straight from vineyard to bottle with no technological manipulation? Or, are we willing to accept that certain techniques and additives are now part of “routine” winemaking processes? Can we just forget about it, drink it and enjoy it?
Winemaking may conjure up romantic images of wine country: rows of twisted old vines tended by passionate families attached to their land for generations, dark underground cellars of cobwebbed barrels that hold history in liquid form. We are romanced with the stories on the fancy labels that describe the magical alchemy of soils, climate, long traditions and ancient practices.
Sorry to kill the romance, but like the food industry, wine has been adulterated by industry giants. That bottle of California Cabernet can be more attributed to a lab-coat-wearing chemist than to barefoot grape stompers.
Wine was once a simple commodity; it now has been hijacked by human intervention. Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, some 8,000 years ago, wine was merely made from crushed grapes that fermented into wine. There were no added sugars, no foreign yeasts, no adjustments for acidity, no powdered tannins. Not only were additives not used, but technology such as reverse osmosis and cryoextraction also did not exist yet. There were no fancy labels or catchy names. Zilch. Zero.
These days, modern winemaking has taken the process far beyond its humble beginnings. Some commercial wines are made in large quantities in an automated fashion that can be soulless. You know exactly what kind of wines I am talking about. The ones that are weighty and flabby but without character. Some are waaaay too smooth, while others have a sharp, acidic tang on the finish. Or even worse, these wines all taste the same, year in and year out. These wines are boring. Yaaaawn.
Over time, the science of winemaking has allowed winemakers to understand the processes involved and the factors affecting wine quality, granting them the knowledge their ancestors did not have. However, science may have gone too far.
Instead of using science to produce wines with minimal interference, some winemakers have been taking advantage of it to gain complete control over every single aspect of growing grapes and making wine, taking over Mother Nature’s job. Many of the big brand wines are produced in massive quantities in factory-like wineries. The flavour profiles of these wines are meticulously shaped by focus groups to match the average palate. These wines have little connection with the environment or terroir where the grapes were grown and reflect more of a chemistry experiment than the vineyard expressing itself.
At the other end of the spectrum, some winemakers are producing wines with little to no intervention at all. Natural or “naked” wines are a nostalgic snapshot of how wine was made before technology existed. Although “natural” carries no legal definition or certification, the term is used to describe wines that have been grown organically in a biodynamic setting free of chemical additives.
Don’t let the buzzwords “organic,” “biodynamic” and “natural” confuse you. Organic and biodynamic are the tools used in the vineyard to grow grapes in an almost spiritual and sacred manner. Natural is the philosophy: it is what happens to the grapes after they are harvested. Simply put, natural wines are made according to old-school methods. They are made following the theory of letting Mother Nature be the key player in growing the grapes, using natural fertilizers and allowing animals such as sheep to graze among the vines. The hand-harvested grapes are then turned into wine using native yeasts with no addition of sulphites — or anything else for that matter! Despite the winemaker being truly at Mother Nature’s mercy, the final product is an honest representation of a piece of land in a particular year. Wine as nature intended it to be. Wine that is truly terroir based.
The modern-day natural wine movement has been flourishing in France (the birthplace of natural wines), Italy, Spain, New Zealand and Slovenia. Even Ontario’s own Southbrook Vineyards in Niagara-on-the-Lake has jumped on the bandwagon. “The desire for natural wines is a reaction to many new-world wines, which are heavily manipulated by the use of cultured yeasts, yeast nutrients, oak additives, flavourings and colourings to produce a consistent and often bland wines. These interventions mask or negate the sense of place and individuality that are regarded as indicators of fine wine,” explains Paul DeCampo, the director of marketing and sales at Southbrook.
Natural winemakers, including Southbrook’s Ann Sperling, are returning to the vineyard without the processing and manipulation of technology. This informal group of like-minded producers has one goal in common: to add as little as possible because they believe that unadulterated wines are more complex and fascinating, reflecting their vineyard climate or terroir better.
Although there are no concrete definitions of natural wines in the industry, DeCampo explains that natural winemakers emphasize that “it begins in the vineyard, with methods that create living soils using organic matter and biodiverse microbiology. Biodynamic practices promote the development of these microorganisms (flora, fauna, fungi) while avoiding synthetic pesticides and fertilizers protects this biodiversity.”
At Southbrook, grapes are hand-harvested, sorted and prepared for crushing (with or without destemming) and pressing. The grapes undergo fermentation carried out by yeasts naturally present in the vineyard or the winery environment. “Native or wild yeasts tend to have more diversity than commercial yeasts, which give more complexity to the wines. Native yeasts are generally less efficient in converting sugar to alcohol, so tend to carry lower alcohol levels as finished wine,” explains DeCampo. A secondary fermentation or malolactic fermentation also takes place. The wines are then allowed to develop without the application of sulphites. If sulphites are used, they would be applied later in the bulk aging process, or just before bottling. Fining (adding protein to remove excess tannins) and filtration are generally avoided, although coarse filtration may be practised. Some wines are bottled with some lees (yeast residue), such as Southbrook’s Orange Wine, as they act as a preservative and stabilize the wine without sulphites.
Technically, no wine is sulphite free —natural sulphites occur during the fermentation process — but avoiding the use of sulphur dioxide is a significant feat for the natural wine folks. It is the most widely used wine additive. Why? For two reasons. First, it kills bacteria or wild yeasts that may spoil the wine. Secondly, it prevents oxidation of the wine.
For winemakers to avoid using sulphites, they need to be skilled and cautious. Otherwise, their wine is at risk of spoilage or oxidation. “Sulphites add a structural element, so at Southbrook, we have been working with the inclusion of stems in the fermentation process to replace that tension in the wine,” DeCampo explains.
Furthermore, having insight into the microbiology and chemistry of wine allows Sperling to keep the wines stable with minimal interventions, or to avoid sulphites altogether. In fact, she stresses the importance of having a “nutrient desert” in the wine, meaning there are no nutrients for any remaining yeast cells or other microbes to thrive, thus spoiling the wine.
Not adding chemicals to the equation of the winemaking process poses several challenges for winemakers. Firstly, without sulphites, wine has no shelf life. It can quickly oxidize and turn into vinegar. “There is still some uncertainty about how the wines will age, although there are examples of no-sulphite-added wines that have aged well,” assures Decampo, mentioning Château Le Puy.
Moreover, without fining or filtering, natural wine can have a cloudy hue with sediments floating around, which can be off-putting to some. Hence the wine needs to be decanted before serving. “Consumers need to be prepared to store and serve the wines differently to accommodate these characteristics,” explains DeCampo.
Thirdly, the flavours in natural wine tend to be more rustic and earthy, exhibiting barnyard, stable and cowpie aromas related to a natural yeast called Brettanomyces (or “Brett” as the cool kids call it) — a quality that some prize, while others scoff at it.
Lastly, being at the peril of Mother Nature, vineyards are more vulnerable to severe weather and disease. Natural wines tend to cost more to produce as approved fertilizers and weed killers are more expensive than their conventional counterparts.
But how does wine without added sulphites taste? Natural wines can be mystifying. They refuse to provide a controlled experience: instead, anticipate a surprise and unexpected taste in your palate. Tasting natural wines requires an open mind and curious taste buds. These wines are often low in alcohol, rarely exceeding 14%, even from hot climate regions. The flavours are a bit untamed, exhibiting unexpected wild characteristics your palate and your nose may not be used to. “There is a wide range of flavours possible, although generally, the wines are less purely fruity in character, with more herbal and savoury nuances,” describes DeCampo. Some, particularly whites and rosés, tend to be darker than usual, with a little effervescence, and cloudy or with clumps of yeast floating about. Natural wines can also be still or sparkling, dry or sweet. These wines are often rugged, which some find alluring, while others think they are unsophisticated or faulty.
Along with its fans, natural wine has its share of detractors. The lack of an official “natural” definition and certifying body make it a free-for-all category, which could lead to scrupulous marketing tactics and deceitful claims by wine marketers. Because there are no hard-set rules or definition, any winemaker can call his wines “natural.” Whether or not it’s true comes down to his integrity. Although there is little abuse of the term, a set of standards or accreditation would provide a sense of legitimacy and avoid any confusion among consumers, allowing natural wines to be taken more seriously. Natural wine associations in Europe are now working towards a standard definition.
We celebrate the murkiness of freshly pressed apple juice and the stinky Limburger cheese, yet we still shun cloudy, natural, unfiltered wines. We insist on wines that taste homogenous regardless of how they were was grown or made. It’s time to forget everything you know about wine and recalibrate both your palate and expectations. Instead of focusing on specific flavour profiles, we need to consider if manipulation of wines is justified and at what costs.
In today’s green society, natural wines have quickly become one of the most intriguing and trendiest wine movements. Conscious consumers are constantly seeking out “local” this and “artisanal” that. They are becoming more aware of what they put in their mouths. They want their dishes to be washed with organic dish soap and their furniture to be built from recycled and reclaimed wood. This is a remarkable concept and should apply to all facets of life. Living consciously requires a holistic approach. According to Alice Feiring, a staunch supporter and natural wine expert, “it makes no sense to want artisanal, organic and minimally processed food, with pure ingredients, and then drink wine with many additives from poor viticulture.”
As we become increasingly aware of what’s on our plate, it’s ridiculous that we are not asking the same questions about what’s in our glass.