The untold story of modern winemaking
We all know that our modern food is full of all sorts of additives, not only to preserve it, but also to enhance its aroma, its flavors, its color, and to reproduce this, or that feel in the mouth, and sort of make us connect with the gustative sensation that only the artisanal biscuit or the artisanal charcuterie can give. There's a long list of specialized chemical companies catering for the growing appetite of the food industry for these additives.
But few of us wine amateurs know__or accept to aknowledge__ that our modern wines are more and more laced with different chemical additives that are being discreetly added during the vinification and aging stages in order to shape the wine's aroma, flavor and mouthfeel. I'm not speaking here about SO2 (a necessary preservative no one has to be ashamed of) or even about solid wood chips, or micro-oxygenation (which can be seen as just a faster oxygenation process), or temperature control, but about new biotechnology products that are designed to sculpt the wine at will, from its aromas, flavors and color to the mouthfeel, middle palate, structure and length.
In addition to the usual additives known to the enologists, there is also a growing number of new products, some of them raising questions even among vintners used to additives, like Velcorin, also known as DMDC, which is actually credited with lowering the amount of SO2 in the wine, but still has mixed reviews as it needs such a careful handling that it is sold only to wineries who bought the 50 000 dollars machine needed to safely dose the chemical. Other products, like Mega purple, have raised questions (here on Vinography) about how far the enhancing practices will go. Mega Purple, which is made by Constellation, is the chemical additive behind the dark-colored, syrupy aspect and richness of many wines, even though winemakers are reluctant to admit the extent of its use.
But even mainstream additives, the use of which is untold to the consumer, should raise some questioning : industrial yeasts like the one that gave the same banana smell to all the Beaujolais Nouveau wines a few years ago, powdered or liquid enological tannins, enzymes, nutrients. all of them being used more and more by wineries to produce a good-standard/high-yield/rapidly-marketable wines.
Newly arrived on the market, the canadian GMO yeast ML01 was created by the Wine Research Institute in British Columbia and has winemakers interested in Australia and America. Financed by "various sources, including the [canadian] federal government, Vancouver companies, the B.C. wine industry and international yeast companies", this new GMO malolactic yeast helps with the otherwise often impredictable malolactic fermentation.
The trend is not concerning only the lower-tier wines (jug wines), but middle-market wines (and even upper-market wines according to some winemakers I spoke with), and this, both in the old world and the new world. And even home-vintners are proposed a wide range of enhancing and correcting chemicals, which is quite depressing, as home wine-making should be the occasion to make real, artisanal wines, and not the same chemically-altered, industrial-beverages that you find everywhere on the shelves.
Nicolas Joly, who first hinted me about the extent of the trend last march, says that these combined enhancing manipulations are so efficient that professional tasters don't detect them in blind tastings.
This article is by no means intended to promote banning the use of such additives (extremism à la José Bové will lead nowhere) but the consumer at least SHOULD KNOW when such products are added to enhance the wine. After all, since the Roman era, many different things were put into the wine across the ages for different purposes and our modern technology can do wonders. But our modern times also ask for transparency and fairness toward the consumer. And it is not fair that wines that are made with no addition of any sort compete in the dark in front of the unsuspecting consumer with wines which have been enhanced with a combination of chemical additives: we can take pleasure in eating a well crafted industrial ham, but at least it does not pretend to be made like Parma ham.
This is probably the best-guarded secret in the wine world : a small number of chemical companies from both the old world and the new world are providing thousands of wineries with all sorts of additives/yeasts/enzymes/nutrients/tannins to enhance the aroma/flavor/mouthfeel and make their wines taste better. These companies are Chr. Hansen, Laffort Oenologie, Ferco Developpement, Scott Laboratories, Vinquiry, Gusmer, Lallemand, Lanxess, among others.
Reading the chemical companies' catalogs helps you better understand (even for a non-enologist amateur) how decisive these products are to enhance the aromas, flavors, color, mouthfeel, middle palate, structure and length of the wine (to quote the own words of the technical sheets). All this material is browsable online. Here are a few random examples of what you can read online on the subject (all text between quotation quotes is quote) [pic on left : racking] :
Gusmer's wine products catalog [Pdf], for example [note that this file is no more accessible online, and that it was saved for you by wineterroirs...]: After a short browsing, and after you pass on the shipping rules (hazardous material !) for the chemical products (p.3), you read a few yeast-strains profiles (p. 7) like results in more fruits and complex wines...produces a more distinct effect, particularly in berry-fruit expression, softer tannins, and prolonged mouth feel....it enhances the aroma, complexity and extended mouth feel in red wines.. About the Vinoflow FCE enzyme (p.17) it produces silkier textures and fuller wines, or about Grap'tan (made by Ferco), a tannin additive, which is designed for color stabilization, improved tannin structure, increased mid-palate character, reduced vegetative flavors/aromas, and aid in protein stabilization (white wines); (p.25). Also page 25, you can appreciate what powdered tannins can do to a wine : "These tannins solubilize instantly and completely in wine and give winemakers full control to balance tannins for optimal structure, mouth feel, color stabilization, flavor, and aromas". Every page is interesting browsing through indeed. The choice is so wide in the catalogs, with new strains and newly discovered enhancements that winemakers have matter for experimentation and discussion, as this insightful debate shows (found on the Wine Business wxebsite). Also in this discussion, Peter Anderson, who went working from Beringer Winery to Scott Laboratories, explains that the commercial pressure on large wineries pushes for the use of yeast additives : "Especially in a large winery, you want to get that fermenter done and out because you're under pressure to move as fast as you can. I think that's the biggest single change in the last 15 years."
On one side, you have the chemical-labs' communication companies who do a great job to raise the awareness of the wineries and enologists about their ever-larger range of enhancers and other products. See this page [Word file] (saved for you by Wineterroirs) found a few years ago in Balzac Communication's website - Balzac, which is based in Napa, California, is _or was_ Scott Laboratories's communication agency (this page has vanished from the Web and was saved for you by Wineterroirs). The job of Balzac here was to raise awareness among the wineries about the new product developments, to quote the own words of the communication agency. They even hinted at these new additives they wanted their customers to discover and use : (quote) Because of outdated communications materials and new product developments, many customers used only a part of the wide range of products offered by Scott Laboratories (end of quote). And for sure, many new additives have sprouted in the last few years...
Now, how strange as it seems, there's no communication at all from the part of the wineries for the consumers to know about all these wonder additives they use to enhance and adjust their wines..... Speaking of additives, communication is a one-way tool.
In this article initially published by the Wine Spectator (may 15 2001) and found on a South-Korean wine site, we learn from Jadot's winemaker that a certain number of estates in Burgundy have been using tannins for years, some of them since 1955, we also learn from Steve Doherty, inside sales manager for Scott Laboratories, the extent of tannins' use in the US :
We sell [tannins] to hundreds and hundreds of wineries, We have customers all over California, the Midwest, Texas and New York. Further, we read : Despite the growing popularity of tannin additives in California, many producers refuse to go on record, fearing that consumers would stigmatize the practice as "unnatural" and "interventionist." "What people say they do and what they do are sometimes two different things,.
The fact is, the names of the wineries involved are kept secret on both sides, as no winery will risk to communicate about these practices. Could it be that they are not proud of them ? In this same Wine Spectator article, we learn that Michel Rolland, contrary to his caricatural depiction in Mondovino, has little regard for wines that need addition, tannins can fix the color, but it fixes it for people who've badly prepared their vineyard and who are'nt making great wines, he says...[pic on right : racking and filtration]
Alice Feiring suggests in this 2001 article that the wineries use biotechnology to adapt their wines to the taste of wine critics and wine magazines who prefer particular flavors and aromas : Winemakers seeking good reviews may be exploiting new technologies not only for damage control, but also to shape their wines from birth.
In this Wine Business article published in june 2003, oenological tannins are deemed to be "the secret behind the ability of Australian reds to so quickly claim a place in the international market". Scott Laboratories representative, Diane Burnett says that her company sells heaping truckloads of tannin Down Under, adding that Bordeaux winemakers also use them although not admitting it...
Many of these yeasts, tannins and products were selected and created in France by the way, where state-funded research centers like ICV, INRA and ITV have been working for a long time on biotechnology. In this sept 1989 article by Andrew Martin, Clayton Cone, research biologist at Lallemand, explains how his company works with the technical institutes in Europe to produce yeast strains. This South African winemaking page [Word file] describes the enhancing advantages of yeasts created by Dominique Delteil (see the highlighted terms), then head of the Microbiology Department of ICV in Montpellier.
The enhancing role of enzymes is highlighted in the page #7 (actually #42) of this study [Pdf] by Oregon State U. and ETS lab (St Helena, CA) during the Joint Burgundy-Oregon-California Winemaking Symposium : It shows the added value of enzyme treatments compared to untreated control wines (Pinot Noir). It notes that with the right enzyme dosage, you get wines with greater purple, red descriptors, increased color intensity, and enhanced fruity, floral, spicy, vegetative, earthy, and body characteristics....Sounds like the miracle additive here...
Scott Laboratories's nutrients page [Word file] praises one of their products named "Booster Rouge" in quite daring terms :
Does your red wine need greater colloidal balance and structure? Try "body building"[sic]with Booster Rouge ! [note down folks : Scott Laboratories has repeatedly edited this page while keeping the same url, first changing the description of Booster Rouge and deleting the "body building" mention (maybe ashamed of it ?), then choosing another format which is the one on today's Booster-Rouge Scott page (no more "body building" either). Isn't that funny ? what could fuel such an editing frenzy ? ]. On the first Scott-Lab page that was spared for you by Wineterroirs, you can read the description of the enhancements : : greater perception of intense volume in the initial mouthfeel...impression of enhanced fruit and freshness...helps with the overall balance of the wine [pic on left: Champagne bottling before bottle fermentation]
On its yeasts page [Word file], the different strains are presented with their respective action: ...results in stable fresh fruit characteristics such as melon and apricot while delivering a big fore-mouth impact, or ...recommended especially for warm region neutral whites where the enhancement of aromatic complexity is desired, or was chosen for its ability to produce ripe berry, bright fruit and spicy characteristics. It consistently produces Pinot Noirs with good structure. It also suggests to blend different inoculations : Wines made with RA17 may be blended with wines fermented with RC212 or BRL97 to give more complexity and fuller structure. Here is today's Scott-Lab yeasts page, there may be differences.
On Scott-Lab's enological tannins page [Word file], we learn that the different tannin formulas (soluble or tablets) can improve the middle palate structure and help significantly reduce or eliminate vegetal/herbaceous character,...is useful in intense, up-front fruity Cabernet Sauvignon and any wine that noticeably lacks smooth tannin structure,..."contributes an additional character of softness and fullness on the palate"...gives a perception of sweetness while improving mouthfeel and texture. Here is a link to today's Scott-Lab tannins page, there could be some differences.
In France, a vigneron from Burgundy told me recently that enology students visiting his chai could'nt believe how it was possible to vinify without using industrial yeast strains. He added that students were taught to use all the range of biotech tools instead of learning ALSO how not to have to use them.
Special relations often exist between the wine schools and the chemical companies, even if it is not loudly advertised. This is a win-win relation: financially wealthy companies provide the needed resources and expertise, and can in return train the future winemakers who will hopefully work with their products. The students and funded research programs can also create even newer products or techniques. But isn't this relation going too far ? In this Sacramento Bee article (june 8 2004), you can read :
"Following a pattern set by farm chemical companies in the 1960s, the biotechnology industry is mining public agricultural colleges such as UC Davis for scientific research, confidential business advice and academic support for its technology.
You name it, and biotechnology companies help pay for it at UC Davis: laboratory studies, scholarships, post.doctoral students' salaries, professors' travel expenses, even the campus utility bill. Some professors earn extra money, up to $2,000 a month, consulting for such companies on the side."
Through the industry/university partnership program (Industry University Cooperative Research Program), the IUCRP and its Discovery Grants, chemical companies like Scott Laboratories (page 31) and Lallemand (page 29) were listed in the annual report as being among the sponsor companies that helped UC Davis. Scott also funded an endowed chair in enology at UC Davis (see the 5th endowed chair, from the end of the article) and a perpetual scholarship in enology [Word file] at Fresno State U. See this page about the history of UC Davis and a couple of lines about the two Endowed Chairs financed by Scott Laboratories. The Endowed Chairs [Word file] are a major funding source for UC Davis and biotech industry funding there may raise questions. Similar sponsoring seems to exist at Washington State U [again, this is a document which is no more visible on the web, and it was saved for you by wineterroirs...].
Biotech companies cooperating with universities, or with university research labs is fine, and it helps talented people to emulate and grow. But does'nt it push the wine schools to ignore the non-additive ways to make wine ?
The last word could be the one I noted in this debate organized with winemakers by Lance Cutler on the Wine Business website. The introduction to the debate points to the central question of "how much they were manipulating the fermentations with additives or technique." and further in the debate, this sentence could apply to the challenges and cascading repercussions of additives intervention :
"The basic rule of winemaking remains that for everything you do there is another consequence, which begets still another consequence."