What's added to your wine?
Jonathan Healey, author of The Wines of Roussillon, looks at a controversial trend in modern French wine-making
CHÂTEAU Vuli's upmarket red wine is lightly oaked with a wild vanilla aftertaste. These flavours aren't the result of careful barrel-aging, however. They come from additives secreted into the vat, including an old table, a vanilla-scented air-freshener and cardboard (to mask the unwanted taste of paint from the table).
This would be embarrassing for the appellation Grolandaise, except Vuli's winemaker insists his methods are legal and, to flaunt the point, tosses a banana into the pinard. While not forbidden in Groland (France's satirical double in the eponymous Canal+ TV news show), how much does this resemble viticulture in the real world?
Quite a lot, actually. The régisseur at one chateau in the south of France furtively told me he plonks staves of coconut wood into the tank to give his premium rosé its je ne sais quoi (an improbable coconut flavour) and plops coffee beans into the red tête de cuvée (his American customers like the smell of torrefaction). The results are misshapen, clumsy wines.
A more scientific way to dose additives is surely Oak Solutions Group's "usage calculator": the firm sells oak tannin power (to mix into the de-stemmer) and oak chips (for the vats), at a fraction of the cost of maintaining barrels.
Oak dust can also be added during Flash Détente - superheated grapes are fired into a vacuum where they explode, separating bitter seed tannins from softer skin tannins, in a routine industrial procedure originally used to correct low quality grapes. A condenser collects undesirable "flash-water" containing vaporised pyrazines (compounds responsible for vegetal aromas, like bell pepper).
Using columns of high-speed spinning cones, ConeTech deconstructs wine into alcohol, aroma vapours and juice. Vinovation offers the same service using membrane technology
and reverse osmosis. Humpty can then be put back together "adjusted" to consumer preferences.
Colour found lacking? Constellation Brand does excellent business with its grape-jelly concentrate, Mega Purple. Hilariously, sweet, dark Mega Purple is frequently added to Pinot Noir (a light red wine), as consumers associate light colour with low quality.
Should Vuliesque winemakers conclude their wine is not sufficiently soft in the mouth, a dose of pummelling microoxygenation is the trick. MOXing mimics the subtle oxygenation of barrel-ageing and racking (transferring wine between barrels) in a fraction of the time.
These insidious techniques save time and money, offering shortcuts to winemakers. They are used on an industrial scale to pump out similar-tasting wines with enhanced fruitiness, stabilised colour, vanilla notes and soft mouth-feel. In other words, cheapish imitations of expensive wines.
What's more, like the Gamma Hydra IV colonists in the original Star Trek episode "The Deadly Years", perhaps these wines will decompose rapidly into a hideous, vinegary old age.
Nobody knows. But that's not the point. Such pinard is made to be consumed immediately. Cellaring it is like bottle-aging new car smell hoping it will be a classic perfume one day. It won't; it will go fusty.
Advocates of these techniques emphasise "deliciousness" and "giving consumers what they want", as Château Vuli does.
Detractors bemoan "authenticity" and rail against adulterated winemaking, though I'm not convinced they wouldn't dream of dropping a hose into overly ripe juice, adding sugar, tartaric acid or sulphur dioxide.
For now, influential wine critics and hocus-focus groups are on the side of "deliciousness", so we'll be seeing more of these wines. And, as wine critics influence market-sensitive winemakers in the same way wind tunnels influence car designers, these wines will increasingly share a similar profile.
That's a shame because there's much talk about "people drinking less, but better". I doubt it. People may be drinking less, but they're often just drinking upmarket imitations of better. The real losers in this story are people (like me) who want to drink more, really good, inexpensive wines. And the real scandal is nobody is obliged to mention this on labels.
Jonathan Healey is the author of The Wines of Roussillon (Trabucaire) and Discovering Wine Country: South of France (Mitchell-Beazley). He hosts wine tours and tasting events in the Roussillon. www.jonathanhealey.blogspot.com