Sunday, March 11, 2012
Why are some red wines so soft and soupy?
This is a question I've been pondering for a while, most recently at the Oddbins tasting this week. I'm not singling them out in particular - it could have happened at any supermarket or high street multiple's tasting - not that there are many of the latter these days.
You know the sensation. That the wine is unnaturally smooth and sweet - plushy is a tasting term I tend to use. Usually quite high in alcohol. Next to no acidity. Sometimes so heavily oaked that the predominant flavour is vanilla. The wine world's equivalent of a cup cake.
I realise that there is a market for this style of wine but it's not a taste I share or one you tend to find among producers who primarily make wine for a local market. Or for consumers who generally drink wine with food rather than drink it on its own.
I guessed it was a question of picking grapes ultra-ripe, and of using thermovinification or one of the many other ingenious techniques open to the modern winemaker so I put the question out on Twitter. I got some fascinating replies of which more later but the most comprehensive answer came from Jason Lett (below) of Eyrie Vineyards in Oregon who I met a couple of years ago and whose wines I much admire.
Lett inherited the estate from his father David, one of the original pioneers of the region and makes his wine in as natural way as possible from dry-farmed grapes that are grown without insecticides, herbicides or fungicides and with what he calls on his website 'restrained manipulation' in the winery ... 'to preserve the varietal flavors and expression of terroir we work so hard to achieve in the vineyards.'
This is what he wrote:
"So here is how to make plush, succulent, easy drinking reds:
* Grow it in a climate where the variety hits 25 -30 brix reliably every year. This would be a climate far warmer than where the variety naturally evolved. (This will cause the natural acids in the grape to metabolize away, so add some acid in the winery. Not too much - the commercial palate likes reds in the pH 3.7 to 3.9 range.)
* Ripening grapes this far increases the risk of rot, so spray a lot of fungicide in the vineyard.
* When you bring the grapes into the winery, you could reduce potential alcohol to 16% by adding water to the dehydrated fruit - or you could use a super-yeast tolerant to up to 18% alcohol.
* Add tannins selected for smoothness. They come from a bag and will help plush out the texture of the wine.
* Use enzymes and cryoextraction to decompose the cell structures in the skin and completely extract the wine. Don't worry if you release harsh components in the process; these can be removed later.
* Don't ferment all the way to dryness. This will limit the amount of tannins the wine extracts, and 1 - 3% residual sugar will mask all kinds of harshness. It also limits the alcohol a bit. And it leaves in a lot of tutti frutti esters for juicy aroma.
* Now you have a high alcohol, sweet, low acid wine which is in great danger of going bacterial - a biological and fungal timebomb waiting to happen. So sterile filter on the way to barrel. This reduces the tannins further.
* Go into new oak barrels (or use oak chips) which are specifically heat treated to reduce harsh tannin and increase wood-sugars, vanillins, and lactones for even more smoooooth sweetness.
* Use a malolactic strain selected for smoothness. Immediately after malic is complete, add 100 - 150 parts per million SO2 to prevent bacteriological takeover. Continue to add more SO2 on a regular basis.
* Further reduce tannins by fining. Add any number of soluable proteins which bind to tannins and settle them to the bottom of the barrel.
* Rack the wine from barrel, blend in tank
* Filter so tightly that all living organisms are stripped away. Or add the chemical DMDC (dimethyl dicarbonate) to kill all populations of bacteria and yeasts and proclaim "unfiltered."
* Use a spinning cone apparatus or reverse osmosis filter, to bring the alcohol down from 16-18% to 14.5% or less
* Add gum arabic, which is allowed as a "wine stabilizer" but which actually serves the purpose of bulking the mid-palate and increasing the perception of sweetness.
* Add yet more SO2
* Bottle it, label it, and send it out for scoring"
Now not everybody is going to agree with what Jason says or, more particularly, the way he says it but I think it's a fascinating insight into commercial winemaking, revealing practices that are far from the image purveyed of wine as a natural, artisanal product. More on some of the techniques involved in my next post: in the meantime what do you think?