The magic box of wine tricks

The magic box of wine tricks

Magic wine

I guess naively I always thought wine was very simple to make: pick some grapes, let them ferment and, hey presto, you have wine! I figured it was probably discovered in some backwater farmland in Ancient Greece sometime where a forgetful farmer left his basket of picked grapes out in the sun too long and under the watchful eye of an imperturbable goat, the juice gradually turned into wine – a discovery to the delight of the Greek family that Sunday afternoon and to future wine drinkers around the world.

How wine was actually ‘discovered’ is very much unknown, but what we do know is that people have been making it since at least 6000BC in Georgia. The oldest winery found so far dates back to 4000BC in Armenia and has relics of wine presses and fermentation vats. If they were that advanced 6000 years ago, chances are the ‘discovery’, with my goat as the first eye witness, was long before then.

Something we perhaps neglect to realise though is that winemakers have also been adding things to their wine for a couple thousand years too. We are often misled to think that 100 years ago, everything was ‘natural’ – there were no chemicals added to food or drinks and that using ‘additives’ is a nasty development since the chemical revolution and McDonalisation of society. In fact, winemakers have always used additives in wine – it was developed simultaneously as an integral part of winemaking. Even the Romans would throw in lots of Sulphur to their wine.

One of the biggest clues that wine is not just fermented grape juice is when you see labels on bottles stating that they are vegan, or even vegetarian. What? Go back a minute. Vegan? Vegetarian? Why wouldn’t it be? Animal products in wine?! This is where you read a bit further and see: ‘contains milk’ or ‘contains eggs’ which can be pretty confusing for new wine drinkers who thought they were just drinking grape juice.

Although legally no country has to specify ingredients in wine, some producers/importers/buyers are a bit more conscious of those people with allergies or ethical scruples, and so list ‘ingredients’ like milk and eggs.

Most of these non-vegan or non-vegetarian products come in at the fining stage. To make a wine clearer you sometimes need to add proteins so that all the tannins stick to them and fall out of the wine. Here is where winemakers might throw in milk proteins, egg whites, gelatin or even the rather unappetizing addition of fish bladders.

It may sound a bit gruesome, but this is only the beginning of Pandora’s box of wine tricks. Most winemakers love to tell you that they do “very little” in the winery, but – like the rest of us – winemakers lie… so I decided to go to an expert to find out what dirty little secrets winemakers have and what exactly does go into wine.

David Kingsbury has his own company, Gransud, which supplies the wine industry in Argentina and Chile with winemaking products and light machinery. “We have a portfolio of over 200 products,” David told me. “I guess on average a winemaker would add between 10 and 30 different products to a wine in the process. But what’s important to remember is that most of these don’t end up in the bottle – they fall out of the wine through fining and clarifying. Even though we add things, wine is still well over 99% fermented grape juice.”

Most of the products all come in powders which are used in small quantities and dissolved in water. Although the quantities might appear small and fairly insignificant, if you don’t use any additives it can make the wine making process quite hard to get off the ground. Take for example the very first stage of winemaking – fermentation. Grapes come with natural yeast on their skins, which should be enough to ferment the juice on its own (going back to my greek goat discovery), but often winemakers need to add yeast to ensure complete fermentation and have more control over the process. Otherwise it can get ‘stuck’ and stop fermenting half way through.

David has a handful of anecdotes of panicked winemakers calling at all times of the day and night with stuck fermentations when their precious 50,000 litres of juice is just not turning into wine… Using industrial yeast is the most reliable way to stop this happening, keep the risk low and help the winemaker keep a little bit more hair on his head.

With over 100 yeasts on the market, it is only really those winemakers at the very top end making an ultra premium product (with plenty of time to attend to the small fermentation tanks) and those at the very bottom end of the scale (who can’t afford to buy yeasts) that don’t add industrial yeast.

It’s not as simple as just chucking in any old yeast though, each yeast (which is all microflora, or different bacteria) has very different characteristics, changing the alcohol levels, aromas and flavors of the wine.

“Between using different yeasts you could have anything up to 2% difference in alcohol levels,” said David, “so it’s quite important what yeast you use.” Flicking through Gran Sud’s product booklet, it reads a lot like a nerdy cookbook (think Heston Blumental or Ferran Adria) or a contemporary guide to alchemy. Spider diagrams point out the different profiles for each product, and there is even a check list for which yeasts work better with which wines. Not that different from adding spices to your frying pan or baking powder to your cakes. Everything you add can quite significantly change the outcome of the wine – this is where the idea of a winemaker as an artist or perhaps magician comes in, they craft their wine by all the ingredients and processes that they use.

Everyone knows about yeast though, and it doesn’t hold too much taboo. The products which always turn up in sensationalist journalism are the use of kitty litter, African tree sap and long and unintelligible additives such as carboxy methyl carbonate.

David blows away the magician’s smoke for me on these three: kitty litter is referring to Bentonite (a main component for cat litter) which is added to white wine to remove the proteins left over fermentation which can make the wine hazy; African tree sap (or Gum Arabic) actually comes powered and is used to stabilize the colour of the wine; and carboxyblahblahblahblah is used for tartrate stability which although sounding a bit nasty it is also the main component for toothpaste – so actually we use more of it in our mouths when we try and clean away the wine stains on our teeth rather than making them in the first place.

All of these additives are very legal, and when they are explained they are actually quite boring. I want to know the winemaker’s naughty secrets, and so I speak to a couple winemakers off the record. They let me in on a trick of the trade. Water.

Sounds pure enough, but actually the addition of water is in theory not allowed in Argentina. The large majority of winemakers do it anyway.

A big problem in the warmer New World wine regions (and due to climate change even the Old World ones) is alcohol. If winemakers here picked grapes at their optimum level and didn’t correct the alcohol level, we would be getting wines of around 17% on the shelves (to legally be wine it needs to be under 16%).

Years ago winemakers would pick a greener harvest, reducing the alcohol, and this was fine when we used to age wine for at least five years with time to integrate flavours and soften before drinking it. But nowadays the market demands wine ready to drink now, and the winemaker is left with little choice… they can pick green and make a substandard wine or try the complicated technological remedy of reverse osmosis, or just sneakily add some water. Some winemakers told me that they might take up to a third of the juice out and replace it with water, but never in an attempt to boost volumes, just to lower the alcohol.

Winemakers in some countries use a code word of ‘Jesus units’ to talk about how much water they have added (referring to the miracle of turning water into wine). The authorities turn a blind eye to adding water as practically everyone does it.

What the authorities can’t turn a blind eye to anymore is adding antibiotics to wine which caused a scandal in 2009 when the German authorities caught an Argentine wine producer adding antibiotics to the wine, and impounded the 100,000 contaminated bottles. Winemakers were adding them to kill the bacteria and make the wine more manageable and although it doesn’t actually have any health risk attached, the EU wine rules state it is not allowed. Perhaps rather odd as the exact same antibiotic is allowed to be added to smoked sausages and cheese… Yet another example of unfair taboos and double standards in wine.

But no wine additive scandal tops what happened in Italy in 1986. A producer added toxic methanol to increase the alcohol in his low alcohol wine, a fatal error which killed 23 people.

Other famous health risks of recent years include concerns about BSE from gelatin used in wine, and more famously the use of bull’s blood. Bull’s blood (or of any cattle) was used for centuries to clarify wine but was banned in the EU in 1997 because of BSE risks, although for a couple consequent years wine was still being found with traces of blood in it. That kind of puts the egg whites into perspective…

However this is still monkey play compared to the types of wine fraud that happened centuries ago. Old wine ‘recipes’ not only called for the addition of blood and sulphur but other ‘ingredients’ such as mustard, ashes and lead. There are records from Roman times about producers making ‘corrupt’ or fraudulent wine, and in medieval Germany the penalty for selling fake wine went from branding to beating the criminal to death or hanging. It was only in 1889 that a country (France) first legally defined wine as fermented grape juice. Who knows what went into it before!

But rest assured, nowadays the wine world has gone the other direction. “A wine cannot be clearer or more sterile than it is now,” comments David. “I would like to think that people can believe that wine is a living product and that it changes colour and there are by-products. But we are probably not going to go back to those days.”

We used to be accepting of drinking a wine with sediment or crystals at the bottom of a bottle, but those days are no longer – we expect to buy a brand and have the same product every time. One of the reasons so many different products are added to the simple grape juice is to fine and clarify the wine because consumers demand a perfectly clear product. In order to make it ‘clean’ though you have to put more things in it. It seems like a bit of a Catch 22 that our obsession for cleanliness and a clear product is the very reason that so many products need to be added – yet we don’t like the thought of adding products into a wine either.

The winemaker apparently can’t win either way, except perhaps just to feed the public the fairytale of ‘doing very little in the winery’ and let them believe that perfectly transparent wine is natural.

The UK is one of the most sophisticated wine markets in the world, but perhaps due to the fact it is not much of a wine-producing country, there is little tolerance of ‘blemished’ wine. This trend is spreading across the globe and so the demand for completely sanitized wine, and thus the box of magic tricks, gets bigger and bigger.

If we don’t want to see a white rabbit listed on our wine ingredients in the future, we need to get over the fact that wine is a living product – warts and all.

By Amanda Barnes

Published in the April/May 2012 edition of Wine Republic