Removing Alcohol in Wine--for Balance
Editor-at-Large, Dan Berger offers his rebuttal to his APPELLATION AMERICA colleague, Alan Goldfarb’s, article on one of the “wine industry’s dirty little secrets” -- Cutting the Alcohol In Wine: What Wineries Don’t Want You To Know
January 30, 2007
The result would have been a wine with about 10 to 11 percent alcohol. Having visited the Loire Valley often and having talked with many Chenin Blanc producers, Stare knew that a wine with a more classic approach, such as he wanted to make, would be better with about 12% alcohol. So he sent out 1,000 gallons of the unfermented Chenin juice to a concentrator and the next day he got back 100 gallons or so of the same juice, only this time far more concentrated. The resulting wine fermented out to just over 12 percent alcohol and was highly praised for its classical structure.
At the time, Stare was most open and above-board about having done the procedure – in effect, he was adding alcohol to a wine which would otherwise be deficient in that component. And there was no outcry of manipulation. Yet, these days, there seems to be some rather heated controversy over the opposite situation, that of alcohol removal.
Look at other aspects of technology over the years. Was there a hue and cry when stainless steel replaced wooden or concrete vats for fermentation? Hardly. Indeed, most modern wineries now embrace their steel tanks, and white wine, as we know it, would simply not exist without them. Filters have been used for wine for centuries, ever since man discovered all sorts of creatures floating in the final product. Who decried their use (until some modern-day wolf-criers implied that filters ruin fine wine)?
I must admit that there was some skepticism in the 1970s, when the centrifuge first became popular to provide clean juice before fermentation. But in 1980, as stuck fermentations for Chardonnay ravaged Napa and Sonoma wineries, the culprit was finally identified as the centrifuge. After which the gadget was quietly put under tarps, with one wine maker calling it “a $100,000 dollar paperweight.”
But technology that works ought never to be ignored for the sake of some purists. The key phrase in that last sentence is “that works.” By that I mean the use of any sort of high-tech-ishness that improves the wine by making it more reflective of its place and more reflective of its varietal.
Reverse osmosis and the spinning cone (and even, to a lesser degree, rehydration) do precisely that. And it’s easy to tell why it works. In a table wine, high alcohol is not a benefit-- it is a drawback. It is a distraction from the fruit components in the wine. To test this yourself, pour two glasses of tap water. Into one of them pour a jigger of vodka and smell the two glasses. The vodka-detracted glass will have the aroma of alcohol. Needless to say, this aroma has nothing to do with grapes, and thus it is that you’ll be able to see this in the same wine poured into two glasses, one with 12 percent alcohol and the other with 16 percent alcohol.
Taking the Terroir Out of Wine?How do you get such a thing, the same wine with two different alcohol levels? You bring a small amount of a high-alc wine into ConeTech or Vinovation and you have the alcohol removed from it completely. Then you get more of the original wine and you begin to make blends of the wine with its de-alc “flavoring liquid,” in varying alcohol levels.
I participated in such an experience a decade ago, at the forefront of this technology. At the time, Clark Smith of Vinovation pointed out that with the same base wine, “we can see that there are two or three or even more ‘sweet spots,’ where the wine is better.” His point was illustrated with a Chardonnay of which he explained, “at 12.3 percent [alcohol], the wine was Chablis, at 13.6 percent, the wine was Puligny-Montrachet, and at 14.4 percent, the wine was Batard.”
Wasn’t this changing the terroir of the wine? Not really, said Smith. What was changing was the style of wine, from lean and delicate at the lowest alcohol, to medium-bodied (mid-alcohol), to rich and buttery. The flavors of the grapes, he pointed out, were more in evidence at the 12.3 percent alcohol – but was what curious was that in totally double-blind tests, the wine just one-tenth of a percentage point higher (12.4 percent) was not as widely seen as a “sweet spot.”
We are talking about remarkably subtle differences here, but when I have spoken with wine makers about this, in very few cases is a sweet spot ever above 14.5 percent. In most cases, the most widely appreciated sweet spot is at 13.-something percent. One classic case is with an Australian red wine, 2002 Pirramimma Grenache, a wine which finished fermentation in the mid-16 percent range, underwent a de-alc procedure and finished nearly 2 percentage points lower. The wine maker admitted that it was an infinitely better wine – and one that showed its McLaren Vale fruit far better than it did at 16 percent+.
To those who argue that there is something nefarious in all of this, consider that the de-alc concepts should play well with the neo-Prohibitionist mob, since it’s removing the key ingredient in wine which they so vigorously oppose. And to those who decry it because it’s simply being done to save 50 cents a gallon in federal tax, remember that the vast majority of those who do this are wine makers, not chief financial officers.
The one area that makes me concerned about the use of de-alc techniques is that it does nothing to deal with the issue of over-ripe flavors which most assuredly do rob a wine of its terroir soul. By having de-alc ideas at their disposal, they are free to ripen grapes until they’re picking raisins at 30° Brix, and still make a wine with 13.0 percent alcohol. Such a wine would look like wine, and might even smell and taste like wine, but such prune-juice substitutes simply cannot display the soil character that a truly distinctive wine should have.
Still, I reiterate my long-held position: any scientific advance which enhances the breed and improves or at least captures what Mother Nature intended is an advance which I believe ought not be challenged. Let the wine maker have the final say in what the wine displays, and then let the consumer determine if that’s a style which will remain extant.
~ Dan Berger, Editor-at-Large
To comment on Dan’s writings and thoughts, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org