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?


  1. Crikey! It ain't natural!
    A very good summing up of all the things the wine industry may do before we get the wine-much like the food processing industry. However, just as we do not have to buy and attempt to eat Chorleywood process bread, so we can also buy well crafted, unadulterated wines.

  2. I suspect it has less to do with style and a lot more to do with economics?

    It appears that a lot of consumers are constantly complaining about the cost of wine. They absolutely believe wine "should" be less £7 bottle, and would rather wine is cheaper, and have no illusions as to how artisanal it should be.

    For a bottle of wine that costs £5, I suspect the wine itself has to be produced at a cost of 20p? How can that be achieved without mass production?

    I have never read anywhere of the existence of a broad consumer movement that says:

    1) Wine is or must be an artisanal product
    2) Given that it costs X to produce, I am willing to pay Y, so that the winery can be sustainable financially.

    Most consumers have no idea how tough it is to make ends meet as a small winemaker. I have even read letters when people are ANGRY that a wine should cost more than £10.

    I doubt people who make highly manipulated and mass produced wine believe that is stylistically what wine "should" be. They do it to meet a price point, and chose a style that will meet sufficient volume demand to make the numbers work.

    It all goes back to the consumers. In a market, anything that is sustainable is merely a reflection what consumers wants. But consumers can be influenced ...

  3. You make a fair point @Tai-Ran Niew. Yes, there is a demand for wines to hit certain price points and this is how to achieve it. But a) there are also much more expensive wines that are made in this style and b) contrary to the publicity about mass-produced food I don't think most consumers have the faintest idea what goes on. I didn't know about some of these tricks like the gum arabic and I'm a wine writer, for heaven's sake. (On the other hand gum arabic is added to ice cream routinely in the near and middle east and we have no objection to that so it's important not to overreact. Not every addition or technique is dodgy.)

    And you're right Martin, we have a choice - just as we do with bread and other ingredients. Just so people buy with their eyes open.

  4. Fiona, Tai-Ran Niew, Martin. A fascinating piece and very accurate, I think. And yes, Fiona, I'm pretty sure that pricy wine made in this way does win high scores, and yes Tai-Ran, I don't believe that most consumers care any more about the way their wine was made than the welfare of the chicken in their Pret sandwich. Having tried to persuade the average-age 70-year-old readers of the Oldie to buy £8-9 wine from independent merchants, I have discovered that what they want is £5 bottles from a supermarket. At that level, as you say, Tai-Ran, there is no way that the wine can be "natural". But then again, maybe nor should it be - any more than modestly-priced beer. They are buying - or want to buy - reliable beverage alcohol, just as they buy "fruit" yoghurt that is full of colour and texture-improver (and quite possibly aspartame.).

  5. Yes, a winery could do these things to produce softer wines but why would they? Also many of the strategies outlined are not legal in many jurisdictions. For example, in the US you can add as much water as you like to water down excessively high sugar musts, but this practice is illegal just about everywhere else. Also I'm not sure where people get the idea that doing all these extra unit processes will make a wine cheaper. Do you think the owner of a reverse osmosis machine will dealcoholise your wine for nothing? When you go and buy that expensive bag of VR Supra tannin do you think the sales guy will just say 'no it's yours - think of it as present'. Not likely. Not to mention, that every extra step adds to the cost due to increased labour. Most large wineries are on the lookout for ways to reduce the number of steps in making wines, not increasing them.

    Winemakers can produce softer wines by careful extraction of tannins from skins by skillful cap management. Cold soaking on skins prior to fermentation is also a commonly employed strategy, as is oxygenation during fermentation. I would agree though that the most commonly used strategy to soften wines is by fining. This practice (typically adding egg whites or gelatin in reds) has been done for thousands of years so I don't know why it is now being demonised by the relative new comers - the ultra-extreme hands off exponents. Leaving some residual sugar in the wine is the easiest, and dare I say it, most commercial way of softening the finish. Most consumers see it as fruitiness anyway if it is not overdone. And it can be done 'naturally' albeit with the help of a bit of SO2 which many natural winemakers use (sparingly) anyway.

  6. Interesting, anonymous (wish you'd given us your name). Ok, fining has been used for 'thousands of years' but the type of wine I'm talking about wasn't made even 20 years ago when I started writing about wine. It's primarily a textural thing though there is a flavour of cooked rather than fresh fruit that I suspect must come from an application of heat somewhere along the line? And don't these techniques make it possible to work with less good quality grapes than used to be the case in the past which must reduce the cost of work in the vineyard? Obviously that's good for the winemaker/winemaking company but it comes at a price (the number of chemical additions that have to be made to salvage less than top quality fruit.

    Shame about the Oldie readers though, Robert. Would have thought with all those years of wisdom they'd have been prepared to spend a bit more than a fiver.

    1. Yes, but I don't think that winemakers take these steps to save money and make a more economical wine. They take these extra steps and expenses to "craft" a wine to suit consumer tastes and to go after a certain style that the critics will praise. This will lead to greater sales and the ability to jack prices up to meet those demands and sales. So, the extra cost is passed on to the consumer

      The problem with this sort of wine making is that all character of grape and place is next to lost as many wines begin to taste the same no matter their origin.

  7. Not only do they prefer £5 wines from a supermarket, they also like the perception that they've bought a wine for £5 that was originally priced at £10 - the love a 'bargain'.

  8. Anonymous, you're right. Cost is an issue. Tesco's Tetra of Spanish Red is a very honest dry litre of plonk. When I congratulated the buyer for not sweetening it up, he simply replied that "sugar costs money".

    We have research data that proved that people (including 60+ male Bordeaux drinkers) prefer sweet wine and find it fruitier. Our research involved red Bordeaux with 0g RS, 6g and 12g. Most greatly preferred the latter.

    Anonymous, the points you omit are that big producers probably have their own Reverse Osmosis/ Spinning Cones and that for commercial wines, the recipe might be to blend totally de-alc'd wine with full-strength and concentrated must (for sweetness).

    Lastly, as I intimated earlier, how much does any of this really matter if what you are making is cheap beverage alcohol?

  9. Robert, the investment in reverse osmosis technology/equipment and spinning cones, plus the labour to operate them has to be factored in somewhere - buy or rent.
    You are dead right on your main point about drinkers preferring sweet (ish) wines. High on the list of latter-day drinkers' revulsions, too, comes tannin.
    If I was profiling a red designed for the mass market I'd specify
    1. Concentrated fruit
    2. Low tannins
    3. Either no or moderate American oak
    4. Moderate alcohol level (13.5 or less) but without sacrificing the weight of fruit
    5. Good label design - this is where to put any money you spend on the product
    6. To sell under €9 (or UK equivalent for buget wine).
    This specification would dictate a soupy, one hit, fruit torpedo. And, as you rightly say, cheap beverage alcohol - maybe wine of this nature should be re-classified and marketed as 'C.B.A.'!

    1. Yep, though you prob can't do a commercial formula without mentioning colour. In red? Blacker the better.

    2. And, paradoxically, no colour in the white

  10. Hi Fiona, really interesting piece! I'd like to know if consumers who like the sweet, soft, soupy style would still buy these wines if they knew how they had been made. Also from my experience holding tastings, when you introduce fresher wines, with lower alcohol they will often prefer them, particularly when tasted in conjunction with food.

  11. Fiona, and all the commenters:
    I don't think there's any point at all in comparing mass produced industrial wines with quality fine wines, especially organic or natural ones. Although both are technically the same product (ie 'wine'), the markets for them are totally separate. People who buy their wine in a supermarket, are looking for price and 'tastiness' only; they don't care about terroir, grape varieties, winemakers or any other aspects of the wine, which is of course of the greatest interest to minority who buy 'fine wines', natural or not.

    I think there is an interesting grey area between these two extremes: on the one hand there are small(ish) producers of fine wines who may use some of those technologies you listed, and on the other hand there are those who grow their grapes organically (or even biodynamically) but without publicising the fact, and who intervene as little as possible in the winery.

    I'm horrified every time I read about those technologies, even though I drink that kind of wine quite often with my 'menus del día'! Wouldn't dream of actually using them myself, though, even if I could afford to.

  12. Fascinating, as ever, Fiona. Love this natural wine site!

  13. Fiona, thank you for such an interesting post on what's becoming an alarmingly widespread phenomenon (which will only get worse). Back in 2000 Patrick Matthews covered a number of these manipulative techniques in his book Real Wine: The Rediscovery of Natural Winemaking. Accounts from Clark Smith of Vinovation in California are particularly revealing. Well worth reading.

  14. Lucy, That is a great book and from 12 years ago at that. If you like Clark Smith you need to read his series in Wines and Vines magazine as well as on line on Post-Modern Winemaking, Subscription cost is worth it just to read his series.

  15. Thanks for the tip-offs, Lucy and Mark - will look forward to reading both.

    And interesting points about consumers preferring wines that are sweeter, Ernie and Robert. Do you think that might be a taste specific to the UK/US? Tasting at an Italian tasting this week I was struck by how marked the acidity and tannins of the wines was, something that obviously doesn't bother the Italians at all. (Will return to this)