Wine? I thought that was just grape juice!
Rubén and I get this reaction a lot once we start talking about what makes our wines different from the average offering on the supermarket shelf. The thing is, that wine should be “just grape juice” but to produce wines at such low prices, all sorts of things have to happen to make those cheaply bought in grapes into a consistent product. It’s no different to any other food. A supermarket loaf is many times cheaper than artisan sourdough because the process is much quicker and the raw ingredients less costly. A glance at the back of any packet of sliced, packaged bread reveals the number of different additives needed to give a consistent and speedily mass produced product. Sourdough contains good quality flour, water and a “mother” cultured from naturally occurring ambient yeasts. And it takes a looong time, as even without developing a new starter, the longer the proving, the better the taste.
Anyhow, I happen to have a bottle of red supermarket wine in the house (don’t ask). Unusually, this one has an ingredients list and it tells me that apart from two kinds of sulphites added as preservatives, this one has been adjusted for acidity and tannins. It arrived here in a tank on a ship and was bottled in the UK once it arrived. So this wine has had to be tough enough to withstand wild variations in heat for lengthy periods of time at sea and on the dockside. Packaged in its giant baglike “Flexitank” within a shipping container, it needed to be absolutely stable to arrive in the same condition as when it left the winery. That probably meant extra filtration to make sure it was sufficiently inert. However in the unfortunate eventuality that something had gone wrong in transit, some pesky oxygen leaking into the Flexitank, for instance, further chemical tweaking could be carried out at the UK plant before bottling to readjust the flavour.
So far from supermarket wines being “just grape juice” and a function of soils, climate, grape variety and the skill of the winemaker, they represent a conscious marketing decision to produce a particular flavour profile and have to be tough enough to survive long journeys in bulk. In their own way, they represent quite an achievement in delivering a consistent product in vast quantities at little cost. The price you’re paying for a £5.60 bottle of wine is after all, just £1.12 - the rest is packaging, transport and the eye watering amount of tax imposed on wine by the UK government*
Which explains why the answer to the next most common question we get: “ surely all wines are vegan?” is a “well, no”. As winemaking additives are rarely listed on labels, it’s impossible to know what has been used for “fining” or clumping up the particles in wine so that they fall to the bottom of the tank and the resulting clear wine can be run off. Fining is also used to adjust the flavour profile of wines, for example to remove harsh tannins from young red wines. Traditionally animal or dairy derived products such as gelatine or egg albumen have been used and even though these are removed from the finished wine along with the troublesome “bits” floating around in the wine, the fact that they’ve been used at all and that animals have been involved in the production of wine, is unacceptable to vegans.
Why is this different to the organic, biodynamic and natural wines that our winemakers produce? Well, firstly because really good wine starts in the vineyard and starts with a whole year of nurturing the vines, from pruning in the winter, through green pruning in the spring, paying attention to the amount of ground cover or lack of it, keeping an eye open for any pests and diseases and finally harvesting at the optimum moment. All this, of course, without recourse to chemicals and with emphasis on sustaining or improving biodiversity on the farm. Only at the end of this cycle does the actual winemaking start, with crushing, destemming, pressing, fermentation and ageing, the latter sometimes for years before the wine is ready for sale. In the case of natural wines or minimum intervention wines absolutely nothing is added to the grapes at all as yeasts naturally present on grapes kickstart fermentation. There is no fining, let alone more aggressive practices like filtering. Around 60 additives are allowed in winemaking in the EU, more in other parts of the world. You can adjust colour, pH, tannins, flavour and add a suite of preservatives to keep the finished product stable. All this is very far from “just grape juice;” very handy if you need to make cheap wine in bulk but not such good news for the rest of us. In fact very bad news for some of us, if like me, drinking cheap red wine in the smallest quantity results in a splitting headache.
In contrast minimal intervention wines are alive (literally, they still contain some yeast cells), rather like a probiotic yogurt, as any added sulphites are there in the smallest possible quantities. Instead of the flat flavours associated with bulk wines, they’re bright and lively, full of layers of aromas and flavours; when we write; “strawberry, citrus and jasmine” we’re not making it up. Paradoxically they last longer than cheap bulk ones once open and can keep developing and changing their flavours over several days. These are wines which really are “just grapes” and really are how all wine should be.
salut i vi!
* Thanks to Gavin Quinney for this stat:http://gavinquinney.com/2019/01/29/19-unpalatable-truths-about-uk-wine-duty/