Saturday, March 18, 2017

Ignore the Snobs, Drink the Cheap, Delicious Wine

So-called natural wines have recently supplanted kale as the “it” staple of trendy tables — the “latest in holier-than-thou drinking,” according to The Financial Times. Farmed organically and made with minimal intervention, the wine in these special bottles is not to be confused with what one natural wine festival called “industrialized, big-brand, manufactured, nothing-but-alcoholic-grape-juice wines.” In other words, what most of us drink.

The mania for natural wine has puzzled many: How can wine, presumably a simple mix of grapes and yeast, be unnatural? Yet when it comes to sub-$40 wines — the sweet spot for American drinkers, who spend an average of $9.89 per bottle — the winemaking process can be surprisingly high-tech. Like the Swedish Fish Oreos or Dinamita Doritos engineered by flavor experts at snack food companies, many mass-market wines are designed by sensory scientists with the help of data-driven focus groups and dozens of additives that can, say, enhance a wine’s purple hue or add a mocha taste. The goal is to turn wine into an everyday beverage with the broad appeal of beer or soda.

Connoisseurs consider processed wines the enological equivalent of processed foods, if not worse. The natural winemaker Anselme Selosse maintains that chemical futzing “lobotomizes the wine.”

But they are wrong. These maligned bottles have a place. The time has come to learn to love unnatural wines.

As a trained sommelier, I never expected to say that. I spent long days studying the farming practices that distinguish the Grand Crus of Burgundy and learning to savor the delicate aromas of aged Barolos from organic growers in Piedmont. Yellow Tail, that cheap staple of grocery stores and bodegas, was my sworn enemy.

When Treasury Wine Estates, one of the world’s largest wine conglomerates, invited me to California for a rare view into how its inexpensive offerings are — in industry parlance — “created from the consumer backwards,” I was prepared to be appalled. Researchers who’d worked with Treasury spoke of wine “development” as if it were software or face cream. That seemed like a bad sign.

Then I learned Treasury had parted from the tried-and-true method of making wine, in which expert vintners create bottles that satisfy their vision of quality. Instead, amateurs’ tastes were shaping the flavors.

I watched this process unfold in a cramped conference room where Lei Mikawa, the head of Treasury’s sensory insights lab, had assembled nearly a dozen employees from across the company. First, Ms. Mikawa had the tasters calibrate their palates, so they shared a consistent definition of “earthy” or “jammy.” In a few days, they would blind taste 14 red wines and rate the flavors of each. (The samples usually include a mix of existing Treasury offerings, unreleased prototypes and hit wines that the company may hope to emulate.) Next, approximately 100 amateurs from the general public would score the samples they liked best. By comparing the sensory profile of the wines with the ones consumers most enjoyed, Ms. Mikawa could tell Treasury what its target buyers crave.

Maybe they’d want purplish wines with blackberry aromas, or low-alcohol wines in a pink shade. Whatever it was, there was no feature winemakers couldn’t engineer.

Wine too full of astringent, mouth-puckering tannins? Add Ovo-Pure (powdered egg whites), isinglass (fish bladder granulate) or gelatin. Not tannic enough? Replace $1,000 oak barrels with stainless steel and a bag of oak chips (toasted for flavor), tank planks (oak staves), oak dust (what it sounds like) or a few drops of liquid oak tannin (pick between “mocha” and “vanilla”). Cut acidity with calcium carbonate. Crank it up with tartaric acid. When it’s all over, wines still missing that something special can get a dose of Mega Purple, a grape-juice concentrate that has been called a “magic potion” for its ability to deepen color and fruit flavors.

More than 60 additives can legally be added to wine, and aside from the preservative sulfur dioxide, winemakers aren’t required to disclose any of them.

This should have been the ultimate turnoff. Where was the artistry? The mystery? But the more I learned, the more I accepted these unnatural wines as one more way to satisfy drinkers and even create new connoisseurs.

For one thing, winemaking has long fused art with science, even if that’s not the story drinkers are told. Ancient Romans doctored their wines with pig’s blood, marble dust, lead and sulfur dioxide. Bordelaise winemakers have been treating their wines with egg whites for centuries. And though the chemicals dosed into wine can sound alarming, some, like tartaric acid, already occur naturally in grapes. The only difference is that today’s winemakers can manage the process with more precision.

by Bianka Bosker, NY Times |  Read more:
Image: S├ębastien Plassard