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Wine additives infiltration times

2 July 2009 1,355 views No Comment

Do you really know what’s in the wine you lift to your lips over dinner?

It’s becoming increasingly difficult to tell. The new fly in the ointment: additives that go beyond the already enhanced tools of modern winemakers.

There’s a new arsenal of chemicals out there, and while it’s hard to pinpoint who is using them, major wine supply firms are selling tons of the stuff.

And not only to amateur winemakers.

Mind you, folks have been adding strange things to their wine for more than 2,000 years. The ancient Romans often watered their wine, adding herbs,

spices, lemon and honey. And since amphorae were lined with tree pitches, that changed the flavour, much like pine resin in modern Greek retsina.

My first clue something was changing came after a lousy growing year in Ontario. Tasting through offerings from 50 wineries gave me a good sense of what

that vintage tasted like and how some winemakers had struggled against the odds to produce good wine in a bad year. The best had done this honestly, by

sorting out spoiled grapes and making sure yields were low by dropping good grape clusters early in summer.

But then I noticed that two small, relatively mediocre wineries of the 50 had produced amazingly vibrant, succulent and aromatic wines. Alarm bells went

off. Some kind of manipulation was going on.

And in tasting global wines over the past decade, I noticed a surge in an aroma and flavour that hints of chocolate in big reds from France, California,

Australia and many other top wine producers. This can occur naturally, but all of a sudden what was once an exquisite rarity in pricey reds has become

quite common in lower priced wines, too.

Let’s be clear. Every growing region has hurdles, mostly climatic, to leap. In Australia, I found myself tripping over huge sacks of tartaric acid in

reputable wineries. The blazing heat of Oz often results in super-ripe grapes full of natural sugars. Without the addition of some natural acid, the

wines would be sweet and flabby and lack structure and balance. So tartaric is a necessary tool Down Under.

In California, at a panel discussion on how to cope with soaring natural alcohol levels in red zinfandels, one noted winemaker boldly admitted he adds

water when the alcohol hits 16 per cent or higher. Four fellow Sonoma producers were shocked, but the winemaker argued that grapes contain water, and

rain naturally dilutes grapes in the vineyard, so what was the problem? Not mentioned was a controversial method of extracting alcohol from wine called

reverse osmosis.

The winemaker’s tool kit is full of legitimate modern techniques. Take yeast, which is needed to get fermentation going. In the old days, wineries

relied on natural airborne yeasts to start the ferment. That was notoriously unreliable and often resulted in disaster. Most wineries today use a wide

variety of cultured yeasts, specifically manufactured to help the winemaker control the ferment and get desired results.

Some ingredients that are added, like egg whites used in fining – one of the steps in the finishing of expensive red wines – fall out in the

winemaking process. Sugar is sometimes added to raise alcohol levels in fermentation, although most countries (including Canada) ban it, insisting only

natural sugars in ripened grapes are permissible. Sulphur has been added to wine for centuries in limited amounts to allow wines to hold their colour

and to age longer.

A lot of people are allergic to sulphur and to histamines, which oak magnifies. For sulphur sufferers, organic wines are the way to go. For histamines,

which are especially prevalent in red wines, it’s necessary to seek wines such as Beaujolais with little or no oak treatment.

The issue of tannins has suddenly grown more controversial, said Ontario Viticulture Association president Jim Warren. “If added, they can enhance body

and mouth feel and take away the greenness of a wine. The issue is, no one knows they are being used.”

Warren, founder and new general manager of Stoney Ridge Cellars and a brilliant winemaker, helmed a tasting of doctored wines at an Ontario Wine Society

function last fall. The idea was to unmask the latest “tricks of the trade.”

Tannins are derived naturally from grape skins and stems, as well as from the oak in which wines can be fermented and barrel aged. For many years,

cheaper wines have benefitted from the addition of barrel staves and oak chips, rather than using $1,000 new oak barrels. But the tannin Warren was

talking about is called Tanin Plus, a powdered additive.

This is part of a brave (or cowardly) new world of performance enhancers that can mask defects, deepen colour and add flavours. They can also be used to

keep a wine tasting consistent in years when nature is fickle or variable.

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