Today, I have decided to write a post related to the “Monthly Wine Writing Challenge” (MWWC) competition (#MWWC23), to address the current theme, “New.” The idea is to write a piece related to wine that expresses the current theme.
It’s no secret anymore that sulfur dioxide (sulfites) are in every wine, and sniffing a cork at a restaurant may not be socially acceptable (or required). But what don’t many consumers know about wine production? So here is my attempt to write something wine production related that could also be of interest to wine consumers, enthusiasts, and tasters: New winemaking “secrets” revealed… and why we use them to make wine.
1. Red wine color is commonly altered… in fact, you are likely used to drinking red wine in which the color has been changed!
In recent years, I have spent some time critiquing wine after wine with brilliant sommeliers and tasting experts from all over the world. However, I can actually admit that nothing irks me more, as a producer, than when tasters get hung up on wine color. In fact, unless the wine is an extremely odd color (like bright orange when it should be a pale yellow or somewhat blue instead of a purplish hue) or showing extreme signs of oxidation (e.g., turning brown), I barely even look at color when evaluating wine.
Why? Because producers can manipulate color – and do – for no other reason than to meet consumer expectations.
I can still remember hosting an Italian speaker for an educational event, and talking about the Nebbiolo craze that is taking wine lovers by storm. I loved when he turned to me and said, “Nebbiolo. Not that deep of a red color. Everyone adds color. Everyone.” Definitely gave me a chuckle, especially when you consider the concentration of wine blurbs that go on and on about the deep red intensity associated with his/her favorite Nebbiolo.
I’m not saying that every wine is colorfully manipulated. But I am saying that it is one extra thing in a winemaker’s toolbox to meet consumer expectations. Why go to all the trouble? Previous studies have shown the mind altering effects of food/beverage color (Morrot et al. 2001, Parr et al. 2003, Spence et al. 2010); it is believed that the deeper the red color (of a red wine), the more powerful fruit perception by the consumer. Thus, consumers tend to buy (and re-buy) those deep, dark red wines.
The color of these wines were not manipulated. Both wines are produced from the same grapes at the same vineyard location using the same production methods. However, they are from 2 consecutive, different vintage years and showing natural color variation. The wine on the left is darker with more intensity and exhibiting purplish edges. The wine on the right has a lower color intensity with a brick red hue. Photo by: Denise M. Gardner, Penn State Extension Enologist
In fact, while at a wedding dinner, I likely offended the woman I was sitting next to when she arrogantly harped on the fact that the wine she was drinking appeared watered-down because the color was not dark enough. “That’s a relatively expensive Pinot Noir from Burgundy,” I corrected her. “Pinot Noir doesn’t typically have a dark red color.” Probably not my shiniest of moments, but yet, I felt the need to make the consumer aware that her expectation was completely, well, wrong.
So how does a winemaker do it?
It’s easy to strip out color. In fact, many fining agents used to stabilize the chemical component of wine can also remove color pigments from a wine. You can also minimize color by removing the skins from the fermentation vat. This is why some red varieties can also produce a pale-pink colored rosé. All of the color pigments are in the skin of grapevines; the pulp (and juice) is typically a clear white color. To keep a red wine from becoming red, a winemaker can simply opt to remove the skins out of the fermentation vessel.
To add color, though, especially to red wines or those beautifully pink rosés everyone is drawn to, a little blending can go a long way, and is one of the primary purposes of blending wines together.
Rosé (pink) bubbly is usually pink because some red wine produced from the red grapes of Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier is blended into the cuveé. This may also be the case with your favorite White Zinfandel. However, winemakers may also lean towards very small additions of Mega Purple and/or Ultra Red – two grape [juice] concentrates used to add color to wines.
Mega Purple, grape juice concentration. Photo found at:http://www.wineanorak.com/wineblog/california/grape-juice-concentrate-and-mega-purple
While both of these products are made from grapes, most winemakers will barely admit to their use. This is, again, likely due to consumer perception and the winemakers’ (and wines’) reputations.
It can be a snobby world out there tasting wines… but don’t be disappointed. Variation in wine color is a natural process, which we saw in the above image: vintage variation during the growing season and altered processing decisions all influence wine color. This can confuse consumers who expect to see consistency in a naturally variable product year after year. The reality is most of your favorite fermented beverages have adjusted color, including your favorite whiskey. So don’t be too hard on your favorite wine brand.
2. Your <$20 bottle of wine is probably not aged in an oak barrel.
Oak barrels are expensive. That’s really the bottom line. The average price for French oak falls around $1,200 per barrel, and for American oak, about $900 per barrel. Prices for barrels are forest, age, char, and brand specific, but the point is that they cost a lot of money for wineries.
Barrel use is an expensive part of wine production. This is a barrel room, from Barboursville Vineyards (VA) shows the elegance and love of barrels used for premier winemaking. Photo by: Denise M. Gardner, Penn State Extension Enologist
American wine consumers love wines under the $30 price point – and I wouldn’t be surprised if many consumers are looking for those $10 – $15 deals. At such a price point, the cost of oak far outweighs the return a winery can make on that bottle.
So how does the oak get in the wine?
The answer is: oak alternatives. Products like oak powder, oak chips, and oak staves can all provide oaky nuances to the wine your drinking. In fact, oak alternative technology is rather spiffy. Most oak alternative products can be classified by toasting levels and flavor contributions (i.e., vanilla vs. toasted oak vs. spice) so that a winery can select an oak alternative product specific to its flavor profile. For example, a Chardonnay that sees some oak chips may not be appealing with an added spice flavor from the oak, but a little bit of vanilla and warm caramel flavor could go a long way. Thus, the winemaker can make the appropriate oak selection.
The reality is oak alternatives are less expensive to produce and require less contact with the wine in order to turn over ready-to-drink products faster to a consumer. These are important considerations when the wine may only cost $7 per 750-mL bottle.
Oak alternatives tend to generate higher intensities of oak flavors to a wine, and, therefore, the art of blending is typically utilized to “tone down” the oak intensity. In my conversations with oak companies, many stated that wineries should start their bench trials by blending 50% of the unoaked wine in with 50% of the oaked wine. This is most reminiscent of what a wine will taste like as if it had come from a barrel. From there, a winemaker can decide whether to increase the oak intensity (blend in more of the oaked wine) or decrease the oak intensity (blend in more of the unoaked wine).
3. That wine does not taste like cinnamon spice because the winemaker poured cinnamon into it… and other fallacies about wine flavor.
Every year someone asks me how the winemaker adds ___ flavor to the wine. As a producer, this will surely give you a smile. Thoughts of adding one flavorant (i.e. extract) after another like a perfume chemist come to mind, but typically, wine writers/experts/tasters refer to nuance flavors that are associated with one of three components:
- The fruit
- Aging (i.e., influence from oak)
With the exception of formula wines (e.g., chocolate wine), wines gain their flavor from those three components. Chemists, flavorists, sensory scientists, microbiologists, viticulturists, and food scientists have spent decades documenting nuanced flavors associated with varietials (i.e., Chardonnay, Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon, Vidal Blanc), region (i.e., Bordeaux, Napa Valley, Finger Lakes), and during processing (i.e., fermentation vs. aging). These flavors are often referred to as wine “descriptors:” terms that we use to describe the wine. This can range anywhere from your basic aromas (odors) and flavors through various taste components (like sourness and sweetness).
But the more important question is… how did those flavors get in there?
Well, many flavors are generated in the fruit (the grapes!) and exist in either an “active” form that one could smell from the vine [seriously… walk through a Riesling vineyard during harvest; it’s magical] or an “inactive” form that will be taken in and changed by the yeast or other microflora associated with fermentation and wine processing. Those “active” flavors or aromas help define “varietal character” – the terminology used to describe a wine variety. For example, common varietal character descriptors associated with Riesling are: pears, pineapple, hazelnut, citrus (lemon juice and lemon zest), slate, and fresh cut flowers. Does this mean that all of these items are mixed into the Riesling fermentation vat to extract such flavors? This picture would suggest so…
The aroma and flavor descriptions associated with a wine do not mean that a winemaker adds those specific fruits or substances to the wine tank. Photo from:https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/564x/c6/7d/ff/c67dff35be8b3c5217e626bac4853510.jpg
…but no; these things are not mixed into the fermentation tank to extra them. However, the Riesling fruit contains many of the same odor-active components that are also found in those other items, which is why they may be expressed in the Riesling’s wine aroma.
Some of the contribution of aromas and flavor may also come from the yeast itself. Some yeasts have specific, consistent nuanced flavor contributions to the finished wine (hmm… Brettanomyces comes to mind). But typical Saccharomyces yeast also acts as a tool to express those “inactive” flavors found in the fruit and convert them into a form that is “active.” These aromas and flavors also contribute to the wine’s varietal character.
Active fermentation. This vessel actually contains 2 different yeast strains to encourage different aromas and flavors that are not typically expressed if only 1 yeast strain was used. Photo by: Denise M. Gardner
A study has shown that, sometimes, flavors are contributed by other fallen plant material that gets stuck in a maturing grape cluster (Capone, Jeffrey, and Sefton 2012). That typical eucalyptus flavor in your west coast Cabernet Sauvignon may actually be from fallen eucalyptus leaves that have gotten stuck inside a grape cluster. During processing, the eucalyptus leaf gets macerated and its oils extracted into the wine itself. Wa la! Eucalyptus flavor in your wine!
Aging, especially oak aging, can alter and/or add to the flavor of wine. When oak is charred, as is the case with most wine barrels, the heating process creates a series of “active” flavors that can be extracted by the wine when it comes in contact with the charred wood. The type/source of the wood (e.g., American vs. French) and the degree of char affects the flavors that are extracted by the wine. Common wood-associated flavors include: vanilla, coconut, spice, toasted wood, toasted marshmellow, smokiness, nutty, butterscotch, toast, toasty, and charcoal.
4. Winemaking is not romantic. In fact, sometimes it is pretty gross.
We hear it all of the time, “Oh, it must be so romantic to look out at the vineyard and crush the grapes into wine.” Hard work: yes. Romantic: no. When it comes down to it, growing grapes is equivalent to any other mode of farming, and making wine is nothing more than producing a food (wine) from raw materials (grapes).
Every year, I have to remind students to be aware of all of the insects they may encounter while crushing incoming grapes to prepare them for fermentation: yellow jackets, spiders – including black widows, stink bugs, lady bugs, and probably several other little crawlers. It’s always a bit humorous to know they were not prepared for this part of grape processing. It’s the part that’s never covered thoroughly in the text books or during wine appreciation classes.
Wine grapes going into a crusher destemmer. Photo by: Denise M. Gardner, Penn State Extension Enologist
Luckily, our grapes are hand-harvested and thoroughly sorted before they reach our doors. Although a yellow jacket sting or spider bite is not desirable, it beats some of the other critters that are routinely collected into wine fermentation bins. Things like rats, mice, birds, and snakes. Oh yes… snakes.
Machine harvesting, especially, has the potential to take anything in the canopy, the vegetative portion of the grapevine. Anyone that has followed a machine harvester has witnessed the devastation. Let me tell you, it’s not romantic in the slightest.
But these are a part of the toils of agriculture. It’s difficult to be out in a vineyard regularly without noticing the fragile ecosystem that exists in front of you.
Additionally, wine is one of the few products where it is found somewhat acceptable to have human skin touch the product during production. When you think about, this is actually fairly disgusting. Many food products require strict sanitation procedures to avoid any potential risk of pathogenic illness that may be carried in the food. But wine, well… wine appears to be an exception. Luckily, there have not been any incidences associated with pathogenic microorganisms affecting consumers through wine consumption. In fact, for a large part of history, alcohol was considered a safer product compared to water, which harbored multiple disease-causing microorganisms.
There’s a lot of hands that touch the wine as it is processed. While the students processing wine are using hair nets (to keep hair from falling into the wine), gloves and specific clothing are not being utilized. However, sanitation techniques are utilized to maintain wine quality. Photo by: Denise M. Gardner
While the general lack of sterility in a wine processing facility may not be out of the norm, the use of sanitation is still widely encouraged to retain freshness, fruitiness, and general quality of the wine. That’s why it’s important to watch winemakers sanitize a wine thief before dunking it into a barrel of wine. Such practices help avoid contamination of spoilage microorganisms which could spoil the wine… and your fun tasting experience.
Capone, D.L., D.W. Jeffrey, and M.A. Sefton. 2012. Vineyard and fermentation studies to elucidate the origin of 1,8-cineole in Australian red wine. J. Agric. Food Chem. 60:2281-2287.
Morrot, G., F. Brochet, and D. Dubourdieu. 2001. The color of odors. Brain and Language 79:309-320.
Parr, W.V., K.G. White, and D.A. Heatherbell. 2003. The nose knows: Influence of color on perception of wine aroma. J. Wine Res. 14(2-3):79-101.
Spence, C., C.A. Levitan, M.U. Shankar, and M. Zampini. 2010. Does food color influence taste and flavor perception in Humans? Chem. Percept. 3:68-84.