Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Californian sweet wine: a continued debate

I had a conversation this past weekend with a few guests about the popularity of sweet white wines, and heard comments about how California is responsible for the sad world-wide trend towards producing "sweet" (off-dry) white wines. Californian chardonnay in particular was vilified...
I should lay a little background for this topic before I go into it.
Most people in the industry consider a wine "dry" (meaning it has completed the conversion of sugars into alcohol) when the level of sugar falls below 2~3 grams per liter. There's a little bit left over in the wine, but at this level it usually doesn't represent an amount which spoilage organisms can really exploit, and the yeasts present which did the work are tired and have pretty much stressed themselves out with the alcohol they've produced and are dying off. Also, the maximal amount of alcohol has arguably been produced, and alcohol has a preservative effect. At this point most human palates can't pick up notes of sweetness in the wine, and the aroma, acid and alcohol components of the wine drive the overall tasting experience. Alcohol itself can add a little sweetness to the profile of a wine, but it also contributes a pungency or "heat" to the experience as the concentration increases (think about the last time you had a shot of vodka...there's a LOT of heat, but also a slight sweetness to the finish). If a wine is a little too acidic, or the body is a bit flat or hollow, a small amount of sugar can be blended in to help fill out these perceived shortcomings, without making the wine "sweet" to the taster. This happens because our palates have been selected to prefer sweetness (think of sugar as a natural indicator that fruits are ripe) over almost every other perception. And even though the levels are below the level where our brains say "this is sweet" (threshold level of identification), we still pick up a signal saying "this is good, but I'm not exactly sure why" (the 'je ne sais quoi' effect at the level of perception, but below that of identification). This is akin to seeing a light moving on the horizon, but we're unable make out exactly what it is: we have met the level of perception, but not that of identification. As time goes by, we look again and see the light has come closer and the object with the light is a ship (level of identification).
Anyway, here's a quick sampling of my conversation at that point:
"Isn't that manipulation?"  Sure it is.
"Isn't that a bad thing?"  That depends now, doesn't it...on the level it's taken to and the final wine desired.
"Then the wine doesn't represent what Nature intended, does it?" (?) Say what...? Remember, Nature WANTS to make vinegar, not wine...WINE is never what Nature intended grapes to become, not that Nature ever 'wants' or 'intends' anything.
"Well, then, you're an interventionist!"  Yes, and back to my point - all WINE is a creation of/by intentional intervention in the natural process when the juice gets to a point where we have alcohol and aromas we like, with a balanced level of acidity.
"But organic wine that doesn't have sulfites..."  Doesn't matter. The process is still stopped by human activity at the wine stage before it becomes vinegar.
"But we're talking about sugar in the wine - how do you get a wine to stop with sugar still in it?"  The real question many times is how do I get my wine to finish fermenting(!) not how do I stop it...many wines stop by themselves before the sugar is finished. Weak yeast strains, "natural yeasts", fruit with minor nutrient deficiencies, excessive temperature spikes (high or low) during fermentation can all be factors...wines can be centrifuged to remove yeasts, and sulfur can be added to shock them into submission.
"How is sugar added to a dry wine? Are we talking about beet sugar again?"  No, this is not like chaptalization, where in the EU beet sugar (being phased out in favor of concentrated grape must) can be added before fermentation to change the final alcohol level of the wine. What we are talking about is more like taking a few of the lots you made which haven't finished their sugar and blending them back into the dry wines to balance body, acidity, etc. If you're one of the lucky ones whom had every fermentation finish to dryness, then you can add concentrated grape must to adjust the final sugar level.
Some producers even select lots of grapes prior to harvest which they then chill and/or centrifuge the natural yeasts and solids out of before they hold it in tanks through the harvest. It may or may not get a hefty wallop of sulfur at this point to help ensure that fermentation doesn't start by itself. After everything else has finished its fermentation, this "stopped" juice can be added back in small quantities to adjust the profile of the wine. The Germans have a name for the wines created by this process: süss-reserve [actually süß-reserve], which literally means sweet reserve. Yes...juices intentionally held (reserved) without fermenting so the sugar can be blended back later. And they have added them for years to make sure the balance of the wine is where they want it.
So is that manipulation? Yes.
Does it produce fantastic wines? Yup, youbetchya!
Is it some new-fangled crap-tastic method to cheat Nature out of what it intended? NO...and while we're at it, let's stop being so g**damned anthropomorphic by ascribing "intentions" to Nature...
Nature doesn't give a damn about what our desires are, and has none of its' own.
PS to Uncle Lou: No, I reject that most California Chards are too floral and sweet to drink, and are best used as weed-killers and ant baits...though I grant you have a different palate than mine...

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Blogger Jeff (Good Grape) said...

Good post, glad to see you back on the blogging wagon.

I've always raised a curious eyebrow to the "natural" wine movement.

I can understand "BioD," though i know you think it's hooey, but calling a wine natural with natural yeasts, etc. seems to me to be at best, naive, and at worst misguided.


April 14, 2009 10:44 AM  
Blogger St. Vini said...

Thanks Jeff!

Funny thing is that I've had some BioD wines I've liked very much...but I've also had many conventional and/or organic wines that I've liked very much.
I still chalk it all up to improved "watchfulness" over the crop and ferments, not the "cosmic connectedness" which seems to hold the center of their attention.

All the same, my dear Uncle is a fervent believer in the Natural Cause...and I can understand his search for complexity...but the "no intervention", "no yeast", essentially "do nothing" dogma is naive.

Just can't fathom why people want to turn off the critical thinking module in their head, and embrace the idea that wine is somehow "unnatural" if people add yeast...

Oh, well. That's why this subject seems it will be a continual point of debate...like the term terroir.


April 14, 2009 4:17 PM  
Blogger Leftcoast said...

Interesting read though I have to say the discussion of how CA chards get their sweetness is a bit naive.

The vast majority of wines are sweetened with drums (or tanker trucks) of white grape concentrate. Its a thick syrup that is 68% sugar made by our fiends in the Central Valley.

Is that natural? Technically, yes. Its 100% grape juice. Appetizing? not so much.

April 16, 2009 4:16 PM  
Blogger St. Vini said...

Hey Leftie!

I personally don't know of anyone using "tanker trucks" of concentrate...though they may exist. It would have to be large producers to use up anything like 4,800 gallons at a time! Most adjustments are made at the 0.1 ~0.3 RS levels, and a single 50 gal drum @ 68°B (roughly 908 g/l of sugar) would be enough concentrate to sweeten ~45,400 gallons by +0.1 RS.I have no current contacts at Bronco which would be my first guess at someone possibly needing a full tanker truck...well, that much concentrate, period. From people I do know at KJ, I can say they make their wines via the süss-reserve method, and people I know have confirmed it several times over the years. Since they're the most "famous" off-dry product line, possibly the largest of that type at ~3 million cases of Chard...well, I can't see that "the vast majority of wines" are sweetened that way...
Fosters? Constellation? Gallo?
I'll have to inquire further...

You are right that there is a good market for grape concentrate in CA, and both types (red and white) can be found here and there...but it IS expensive stuff, and I think that most opt for intentionally "sticking" a few fermentations of their own rather than pay the prices for that stuff. Of course, if it's a smaller winery which doesn't have the volume to "stick" one of their own, or a small blend which won't require much, then people probably turn to concentrate as it might be easier.
It can also be used for final adjustments - a "fine tuning" if you will...but amounts would still be small...


April 17, 2009 7:37 AM  

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