It's More Than Just Wine

If you are not ready to give up your “Age of Innocence” about wine, please click off and read another column. You are not going to like what we will be discussing here today.

Are they gone yet? Good. For most of us, the realities of wines and spirits are interesting and we spend hours discussing processes, raw materials, locations, and all manner of aromas and tastes. But the end result is not the simple story of purity and goodness, with the full cooperation of a kindly Mother Nature, who only wants to see us happy.

Truth is, it’s a big, ugly world out there and all that surface beauty does comes with a cost. The first casualties, particularly when it comes to wine, are the words “pure” and “natural.” Sorry, but there are no such things as wines in a pure, natural state.

The very fact wine is a living thing which continues to evolve and change over the years in the package should tell you that something has to be done to control the evolution. Let’s start at the beginning and work our way to the sordid and most interesting end.

Today’s wine grape vine is not a one-piece mechanism. Root stock is the first piece of the puzzle. It’s designed and grown in nurseries, especially developed for the ground conditions in which it will be living. Maybe those conditions are rich in limestone, or present drainage challenges, or maybe they are sandy, even rocky. There’s a root stock designed and created to inhabit whatever the soil can throw at it. The root stock is not specific to a particular grape varietal; it is specific to its environment. 

Grafted onto that rootstock is the grape plant varietal which the vineyard owner has determined they want to grow. A specific vine sapling for Pinot Noir or Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon or Sauvignon Blanc, whatever the owner wants, is attached to the root stock. But that does not mean all is right with the world. Insects and pests, disease, vine and canopy pruning, irrigation, birds, along with a myriad of other challenges and duties have to be met with a significant response. Pesticides are selected for very specific applications. Water is brought directly to the roots of the vine. Fertilizers are implemented at exact times to enhance precise conditions. And so on.

Since the results of each year’s crop are not always what the winemaker desires for raw material, chemical additives are brought into the picture, as necessary, during each step of vinification. Sometimes the additives are simple, like sugar and sugar cane, to buck up the alcohol levels. Designed yeasts are often added so that fermentation is correct and complete — remember it’s the yeasts that attack the sugars and the result is alcohol. Depending on the fruit that is harvested, sometimes the natural yeasts occurring on the grape skins is enough to complete the process. But sometimes designer yeasts are brought into the picture that act in particular ways with the types of sugars, both natural and artificially added, in order to achieve desired results.

There are times when the fruit just is not quite right. It may be a lighter color than the winemaker would like to have. It may be not as ripe. Possibly the “weight” of the juice is not where the winemaker would like it to be. Maybe there was an issue with fermentation and the end result was not making the winemaker happy. There is a world of chemical additives to correct every issue. And here is where the winemaker’s knowledge of bio-chemistry comes into play. With many solutions, new issues arise that require additional intervention.

Should bacteria develop, sulfur is added to kill the unwanted guests. This step should not be confused with the sulfites that some people complain gives them headaches. More on that later.

To give the wine a deeper color, a black chemical is added. If the wine is not acidic enough, then acid is dumped into the mix. Maybe the wine is too acidic, then de-acidifiers are brought in.

The wine is cloudy? Fining and clarifying agents like albumen (egg whites), isinglass (dried fish bladders), casein, and food grade gelatin are incorporated. The wine has an “off” flavor? Maybe milk products, like half-and-half or skim milk is brought to the mixture. Heat-labile proteins are those that are easily destroyed by temperatures or light and can cause spoilage. Their removal is done with protease which is derived from bovine pancreas or stomach. And so on.

Keep in mind that while many of these items placed into the wine precipitate out or are removed, the truth is that whatever touches the wine leaves its signature. You may not realize it is there, but some trace of whatever took place is present. Sometimes wines that try to go rogue during the fermentation or barrel aging process have to be dealt with in a variety of ways at different times. These wines can take on an “artificial” feel in the mouth or on the nose. 

Then a wine, again a living, always developing liquid, has to be shipped to market. Shipping is a stressful circumstance for a wine. To stabilize the wine during its journey to you and help it maintain its fresh state, sulfur dioxide is added. “Sulfite” is the catch-all phrase under which this compound, among others, is lumped.

Most people have the ability, through their own enzymes, to deal with sulfites and so no effects take place in the human body. But there are those, often people with asthma, who cannot deal with sulfites and so develop unhappy responses to the presence of these chemicals. One of those responses is headaches. If you are one of those unfortunate souls, there are a couple of solutions that may work for you.

• Red wine contains fewer sulfites than white. So if you have been blaming red wine for your headaches, possibly there are other causes than sulfites. It may actually be that your body is reacting to tannins, not sulfites. Because red wine has more tannins than white, this wine uses fewer sulfites for stabilization.

• It is possible, if you like wine, that you take an anti-histamine tablet before drinking and you can eliminate or greatly reduce the effect of the wine on your sinuses.

• Look for wines that contain no sulfites. These are not in great supply and they are not necessarily organic but they are out there and the “no sulfites” designation is on the label. 

Also, don’t automatically assume because a wine is labeled “organic” that it will have less chemical intervention during its creation. There are certain limited legal definitions of what the term “organic” means, but it does not mean the wine is without additives or that it is more pure than wines not marked.

You may find that wines noted organic agree more with you, either politically or physically. I would not get on a very high soap box, however, should you decide to devote yourself to these wines. Because of the nature of the beast, wine is a living thing, something always has to be done or added to keep some nasty fermented grape juice from ending up in your glass.  

Digital Sponsors

Become a sponsor ...

Sign up for our FREE

New Orleans Magazine email newsletter

Get the the best in New Orleans dining, shopping, events and more delivered to your inbox.