Machine Made Wine

By Posted on Jun 11 2010 | By

Wine embodies the essence of simplicity. Fruit fermented by nature producing a liquid that enhances the joy of living. ‘Tis wondrous.

But not so fast. Is making wine really just the simple act of letting natural yeast transform grapes into nectar? Well, yes—and no. Consider that the smallest winery in the world is a single grape. Just one grape contains everything required to make wine: natural yeast clinging to the waxy skin, the juice and pulp providing the needed liquid and flavors, and moderate temperatures igniting the love affair. Of course, adding a few more grapes to the process helps satisfy our desire for the end product.

It really takes minimal intervention by man to produce wine. Oh, you want good wine? Different story. That’s a bit more work. Over the centuries, wine has steadily grown in quality. Today, the finest wines in the history of the world are readily available in almost any price range. There would be little competition today between a 16th century wine and a modern rendition of the same grape. Modern would win hands down. Another gift from science.

And advancements continue to unfold. We are poised to enter a new and fascinating era of wine production. Virtually everything created by man from food, to electronics, to health care, is changing at blinding speed. What’s new today is passé tomorrow. Just keep your emotional seat belt buckled because we all are traveling on Interstate Technology and there is no speed limit.

Nonetheless, there are some enophiles that posit progress is not our most important product when it comes to wine. Serious discussions are waged daily about the growing homogenization of wine. Because the science has advanced so dramatically in last twenty years, many connoisseurs worldwide claim wine increasingly tastes the same. The effect of terroir—or the somewhereness of the grape’s character—is being lost. French, American, Spanish, Chilean, South African or Australian—many believe we are rapidly losing the ability to tell the difference.

Here are three interventionist technologies that are being used today to manipulate wine in an effort to achieve greater winemaking control, while simultaneously producing bigger, bolder, more concentrated high end wines. Like everything man pursues with gusto, money and fame seem to be driving these new machine-made wines.

Reverse Osmosis

Reserve Osmosis Machine

For the production of flavorful, rich tasting wines, grapes need to have a reasonably high level of sugar when harvested. This is becoming less of a problem than in the past because of rising global temperatures. Unfortunately, high sugared grapes also produce high alcohol wines, a characteristic often resulting in hot and unbalanced flavors. To solve this dilemma, a process called reverse osmosis is increasingly being employed that removes a percentage of the alcohol in the finished wine while retaining its flavors, resulting in a denser, more balanced and fuller bodied wine. It is estimated over 500 wineries in California employ reverse osmosis for alcohol reduction. And in Bordeaux—the heart of France’s classic red wine producing region—it’s reported over sixty of the machines are in operation.

This process can also be used to remove excess water from just harvested grapes. This is especially useful in regions where fall rains over saturate grape juice levels, diluting the resulting wine. In this instance, water is removed prior to fermentation producing wines with greater depth and concentration.

Spinning-Cone Column

This technology removes alcohol in fermented wine through centrifugal force and vacuum. While the process is different from reverse osmosis, it achieves the same result. The equipment is quite expensive and often a winery will enter into a service contract to have its wines treated. A US company developed the equipment but it is now being used in wine growing regions around the world.

Vacuum Distillation

Yet another technique for removing water from “must”—the slurry of crushed and destemmed grapes prior to red wine fermentation—is distilling under vacuum. Concentrators heat the must up to 86 degrees under vacuum, removing the desired amount of water. Two drawbacks to this process are the diminution of aromas in the final wine and the higher cost of the process versus using reverse osmosis.

While these three processes do achieve their objectives, it’s tempting for a winemaker to over apply the principles to produce wine beyond just the basic reduction of alcohol or water. Success in the wine business today is heavily dependent on earning rave reviews from the critics, as expressed in a numerical rating. A 94-point wine will often fly off wine shop shelves while its almost equally tasty 87-point brother may languish unnoticed, perhaps ultimately destined for the special deal bins. The desire to become highly profitable and well known drives a growing number of producers to tweak their wines in whatever ways necessary to attract the critics’ attention. These machine-made wines can take a bottle to places not possible if vinified under natural conditions.

All of this leads to the question, is this good or bad? It depends on your perspective. If you are inclined to think natural and want to drink as pure an expression of the winemaker’s art as possible, you would object to these emerging wine technologies. Conversely, if you enjoy wines that are big and flavorful but perhaps similar in taste regardless of the region or producer, then interventionist wines would be your ticket. Let’s underscore that none of these techniques affect the safety or quality of the wines. Both approaches produce clean, healthful products.

Here is Virginia you will rarely see these technologies employed because they are more suited for large volume producers. All of the processes are expensive and ill suited for small boutique wineries found in the Old Dominion. In Virginia, you are more likely to encounter true and pure examples of wine that reflects the region in which it is grown. Here wines are more closely aligned with the traditional French style. Our climates are not too dissimilar to our Franco brothers turf and are more focused and defined on the palate than the jammy California or Australian offerings. Each approach showcases the manner in which the wines were created.

Man-made or machine-made, the delicious choice is yours. Just another beautiful example of the diversity of the world’s most seductive libation….ahhh, wine.

Published in the Summer 2010 edition of  the Virginia Wine Gazette.

Categories : WINE ARTICLES