Yes, I know that does sounds like clickbait. While it may seem I am writing a promotion piece for Greenpeace, or a stainless steel tank company, this piece is coming a different angle, so to speak. In fact, I cannot even name a steel tank company off-hand. The title question may send tingles of annoyance, or smirks of dismissal, but it begs the question: is barrel aging in new oak a flavour enhancer? Well, yes, factually this is true. Is it cheating, in so far as creating a product not created from grapes, and thus….fraud? Yes, but no one cares – and that’s frankly over dramatic and hyperbolic. However, lets explore…
Not too long ago, a scandal took place, involving flavour additives/concentrates being added to Sauvignon blanc. The concentrate was wholly organic – pressed straight from a fruit, or blended or whatever. The details differ, the source material (the fruit) remains the same. The process and product was harmless. The offense lay in the perversion of industrial honesty, whatever that is.
Bureaucracy is a theatre stage, the paperwork props and curtains can often distort right from wrong; presentation and delivery often create their own morality. Our friends above were none too subtle, had they used pepper stems or something a little more creative, I’m sure their careers may be more intact.
In my opinion – and I think this is indisputable, when scrutinised – barrel extraction and pouring green pepper concentrate into wine are identical process, when we speak in terms of intentions. They are both literal flavour additions, the latter technique just lacks refinement. Yes, barrels have a multitude of other benefits, most notably, micro-oxidation, but the toasted oak extraction is often the most desired benefit – else, why spend such money on new oak? As a point of consideration, micro-oxidation might also seem like a flavour additive, but now you can see the rabbit hole digging itself. We shall remain more direct in our examples.
Moving to something less direct, but far more profound, we can consider sulphur. The effect sulphur dioxide has on wine is without parallel, hence its ubiquity. It’s an antioxidant, antiseptic and a colour stabiliser. A wine with a good sulphur wack six months down the line, tastes very different from one without. The common mantra is that a bit of sulphur keeps the wine’s integrity. From here, we start to enter the realms of metaphysics: sulphur is a preservative, it cuckolds oxygen and bullies microbes, as such, it keeps the flavour mutators at bay and therefore, whatever flavours that were there already, in place. So are we preserving grapes or are we creating wine? Wine is not grape juice, it has been transformed. We strive so hard to preserve these grape flavours with careful oenology, and yet try equally hard to ensure our wine is as wine-like as possible. Something of a paradox.
Setting the riddle of sulphur aside, its pure effects are powerful. Furthermore, sulphur itself is a nasty chemical to boot, and yet we allow it. While I have got sidetracked on the issues above, the takeaway message is one of hypocrisy. Some products are permitted for manipulation of wine and some are not, for seemingly inconsistent reasoning. Some have more direct flavour effects than others, though direct or indirect it doesn’t matter, the only reason something would be added to wine would be to influence the organoleptic properties of the wine, as that is the ultimate purpose of the stuff. Wood has heritage, sulphur is too important to skip. Adding green pepper juice is perhaps just a push too obvious, too direct, too in slavery to marketing: an offense to the art. There seems to be a line here, that divides wrong from right, but it is very skew.