The Use of Enzymes in Modern Winemaking

Originally published in Palate Press: The online wine magazine

By Geoffrey Moss

Enzymes are a natural and fundamental element of the winemaking process.  Nowadays, they are also a commercial product found in many wineries, another utility in a winemaker’s toolkit.  They have the potential to make more extracted and more aromatic wines and to accelerate the winemaking process.  They also have the potential to make worse wines if not used properly.   But there is also a more pressing concern: is the use of commercial enzymes contributing to homogeneity in the wine world?

Today, winemakers have more means by which to truly “make” wine than ever before.  Examples include traditional winemaking techniques such assur lie (lees contact), bâtonnage (stirring of the lees), maceration (skin contact), and barrel aging.  Different permutations and combinations of these four variables alone can produce distinct wines.  Indeed, it would be naïve to think that wine is not – no matter how traditionalist, non-interventionist, or ‘natural’ – to some degree made.

Some interventions affect the resulting wine indirectly, whereby the juice itself is not directly altered, but its environment is manipulated.  Temperature-controlled tanks allow the temperature of fermentation to be dialled in to the winemaker’s specifications.  Small differences in fermentation temperatures can result in significant changes in aromatics and flavors.  For example, white wines fermented at cooler temperatures (around 15°C) are typically fresher and fruitier than those fermented at warmer temperatures (over 20°C).

Then there are direct modifications to the juice.  Some common additions include tartaric acid, sugar to increase potential alcohol (chaptalization), and fining agents (to remove soluble solids).  Such modifications are not particularly modern and have been used in winemaking for centuries.

These additions are most often used in the case of a deficit or surplus in the juice: a lack of acid, a lack of potential alcohol, or excess bitterness or phenolics, for example.  They are used, in a sense, to correct flawed juice.  But what if a winemaker doesn’t need to correct his or her juice – everything is in balance – but still wants to improve the resulting wine?  That is when the modern winemaker can use enzymes.

Enzymes are proteins that speed up chemical reactions.  For winemaking, this means that enzymes help things move along faster than they otherwise would in nature.  And enzymes are not entirely foreign to the winemaking process.  Enzymes occur naturally in grapes and yeast, and will naturally influence the winemaking process …