Jamie Goode: Tricking up red wines – when is technology going too far?

By , 2 October 2021

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A spinning cone column used to remove alcohol.

The best definition I’ve heard yet for ‘quality’ is fitness for purpose. So if someone asks, is this a good wine, then my response is, for what context? Say I’m sitting in the dappled sunlight in Kalk Bay at lunchtime and I want a glass of red wine. The best quality red wine in this context will be different to a winter’s evening by the fire in a fancy Constantia home with some wine geek company.

If we think about quality in these terms, and segment the market appropriately, then suddenly notions of wine quality – and what constitutes a good wine – are a bit more nuanced than the declaration of the best that a high point score constitutes. If you drink in different contexts, then to insist on drinking only 95+ point wines, even in this era of score escalation where that has become quite a broad church, will deny you some of the best wine experiences.

Simple, ‘commercial’ wines can be very good quality wines in the right context. I use the term commercial here with trepidation, because some hate that term and love to insist that if money is paid for a bottle then it is commercial. But most of you know what I mean. The interesting question is if it’s the goal of winemakers to make a wine taste nice, then what is acceptable in terms of winemaking technology and additions to get that wine to appeal to a perceived consumer segment?

So let’s take a look at some of the things that go on behind the scenes in making mass-market-friendly red wines.

The first is sugar additions. By sugar, I’m including sources of sugar, such as grape juice concentrate. Many commercial red wines aren’t as dry as people think they are. It’s quite common to have over 5 g/litre of residual sugar in mass market reds, and it’s not uncommon to have over 10 g/litre. Apothic, a best-selling brand from the USA, has 16 g/litre. Now below 4 g/l you can’t really spot added sugar, but at this level you can. These slightly sweetened red wines are very popular, because they taste nice, at least at first sip. Sugar papers over any cracks: it makes tannins taste less tannic, it offsets any green notes, and it gives a smoothness to the palate, accentuating the fruitiness. The simplest and most stable way to add sweetness is to ferment the wine dry, and then add back grape juice concentrate to the desired sweetness level at the blending bench. Another option is to use a stuck ferment with high sugar levels to sweeten up the final blend. Adding sugar used to be an option but isn’t legal for wines destined for the European Union.

Is adding sugar bad? No, but it’s used a bit excessively. Some of the big Aussie brands are addicted to it, while there’s one that doesn’t rely on it and I think their dry reds are better for it. If the fruit is good, then it really isn’t needed.

Some dry wines taste sweet because of their fruitiness, though. Picking very late can give a really sweet fruit profile and soft tannins. Then the issue is the high sugar levels leading to high alcohol in the finished wine. So one trick is to reduce the alcohol level, typically by using a spinning cone or reverse osmosis to reduce the alcohol in part of the blend, and then to use this to reduce the alcohol to the desired sweet spot in the final wine. In some countries water addition is allowed to bring the alcohol back a certain amount, but this can have the side effect of reducing the acidity. I think picking late is a bad thing, and the wines that result are tiresome to drink. Yes, if the fruit comes in at very high potential alcohol, sometimes removing some later might actually result in a much nicer wine. But it’s non-ideal.

Wood! People like the taste of oak – well, at least some do. The char of oak barrels giving vanilla, coconut, spice, toast and roast coffee aromas can add an instant appeal to red wines, and can also cover over some cracks, too. But barrels are expensive. Oak products, such as chips or staves, designed to offer the same flavour impact but at a cheaper price, are quite popular. The flavours they impart can, however, be a bit too obvious. And part of the reason barrels are used is because the small amount of oxygen transmission they allow the wine to receive has positive effects on its development. Some try to replicate this with oak staves and micro-oxygenation, but the results aren’t really comparable. Personally, I hate wood products, just as I hate over-oaking, and the more obvious effect of American oak. I understand that some people like these wines, but I don’t think staves or chips taste very nice. Sometimes wood products can be used during alcoholic fermentation of reds, but then it’s not to add flavour, but rather fix colour and structure. That’s more defensible.

And then there’s another manipulation that is common for cheaper wines, hot extraction, or as it is also known, thermovinification. There are a range of methods out there, and they are really only used by big wineries because the equipment is expensive. The idea is to use heat to extract colour and tannins from crushed red grapes, and then fermentation takes place at normal temperatures. The result is exuberantly fruity wines full of colour and primary fruit. They have a sense of deliciousness, and they can also be beautifully fresh and direct. The problem is that the wines tend to taste the same. They are commercially astute and usually good quality, using the fitness for purpose definition, but there is no sense of place here. They taste like fruity, generic red wines.

In some ways, you could include carbonic maceration here. It can result in wines that taste more of the process than the place. Of course, people like me love it because it’s a part of the natural wine toolkit, but then aren’t I being a little bit biased if I accept carbonic and reject other winemaking techniques that impact flavour strongly?

Overall, there are lots of ways winemakers can push wines around in terms of their taste, but we shouldn’t forget that even very commercial wines are pretty natural in the context of alcoholic drinks, and there are strict rules about what can be added. There’s much more to say on this, but I’ll leave it there for now.

  • Jamie Goode is a London-based wine writer, lecturer, wine judge and book author. With a PhD in plant biology, he worked as a science editor, before starting wineanorak.com, one of the world’s most popular wine websites.

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  • Fabien4 October 2021

    How can we know exactly what is behind each wine when we are in front of all the bottle in the shop? There is nothing on the label which indicates what has been done!

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