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Improvement or Manipulation?

by David on April 15, 2007

I was fascinated that someone would think to undertake a survey like this one (PDF) on wine manipulations, such as adding color or oak chips to wine.

For one thing, I think the vast majority of consumers and probably a big percentage of the trade are completely unaware that this stuff is going on at some wineries. For another, a lot of wine professionals, including winemakers, tend to think that the industry would be better off if consumers and the trade remain ignorant of these goings-on. I approached an enologist/friend about explaining some of these techniques in a podcast, and the reply wasn’t exactly “why expose dirty laundry” but that was the message. No interview.

Reality is, with the rapid rate of communication these days you’re going to hear about this stuff, whether we want you to or not, and it’s better to discuss the facts up front rather than let “truthiness” rule the day. I plan to outline simple explanations for these techniques in the near future but, in the meantime, it’s so interesting to consider how we determine exactly what constitutes manipulation.

For instance, I was surprised to see barrel aging referred to as a manipulation. Huh? We’ve been keeping wine in wood containers since at least Roman times, presumably originally as a method of storage and transport. According to our barrel broker at Artisan Barrels, the flavor addition wasn’t really a factor until the middle of the 20th century. So, is the reason that I don’t think of barrel aging as manipulation because it’s so long standing? That kind of shoots a hole in any objections we may have to some of these other manipulations because if we just wait long enough they’ll become “traditional”.

How about “chaptalization” or adding sugar before the fermentation? That’s been going on for centuries too, in a casual way, and was finally recognized as a technique that “improves” wine and given a name in the 19th century. Well, it’s illegal in California. I guess it’s too much of a manipulation here (aside from the fact that it’s rarely necessary).

And then there are extremely modern techniques such as de-alcoholization and micro-oxygenation that are viewed as more controversial. Is it just because they’re new?

I start to play devil’s advocate with myself: “Maybe these new techniques bother us because they’re more intrusive.” Well, what’s more meddlesome than a 60-gallon oak barrel? A large wood container doesn’t have as much impact, but that small cooperage? That’s a pretty big happening in a wine’s life. I honestly don’t know if more high-tech equals more intrusive. Should we be complaining about stainless steel tanks replacing old clay, stone, leather, concrete or wood containers? You’re going to have a tough time getting a winemaker to part with his stainless steel tanks, valve fittings and equipment for reasons of hygiene, and we all like that, don’t we? How do we define improvement vs. manipulation?

I loved this remark from a decidedly non-interventionist winemaker in Friuli, courtesy of Vinography: “…all winemaking is intervention in a natural process that leads to vinegar.” All he’s trying to say is that grape juice wants to be wine, and wine wants to be vinegar, so the winemaker always has to step in and exert some control rather than adopting the romantic notion of letting nature take its course.

What do y’all think? Where do we draw the line? How would you respond to this survey?

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