The soul of wine |

The soul of wine

Rod Byers
Special to The Union

It's popular, in certain wine circles, to bemoan the loss of wine's soul. Critics rue the day when wine became an industrialized, manipulated, commercialized product. That does sound awful.

The blame for these industrialized wines is usually placed at the feet of "New World" winemakers who are accused of controlling and manipulating the entire process from seedling to the last drop into the bottle.

"Old World" winemakers, those from Europe (as opposed to everywhere else) are tradition-bound and therefore less likely to manipulate their wines.

Robin Garr, author of the online Wine Lover's Page displays a common view when he writes, "Given the choice between a New World-style wine industrially tweaked by centrifuging, flavored with oak chips and "enhanced" in color with commercial products like the widely, but secretly, used Mega Purple, or a fresh, relatively unmanipulated European wine, I'll go for the old-school Old World option every time."

Left untended, the natural course for wine is to become vinegar. Does manipulation first start with the prevention of that?

Well, when you put it that way.

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One of today's hot button wine topics is the debate between old world and new world wines.

Another is between natural versus manipulated wine. In the fiercest corners, it is sometimes stated as the battle for wine's soul. Is it fair to blame the new world?

If organic food is the answer to the cavalcade of post World War II, highly processed, industrialized foods, then could natural wine be considered the equivalent in the wine world?

How far back do you have to go to discover when wine was natural?

Dry wines, especially when grown in Europe's marginal, cooler climates, were often under-ripe, low in alcohol, thin, and acidic. If they weren't vinegar already, they were one step from it.

That's the problem. Left untended, the natural course for wine is to become vinegar. Does manipulation first start with the prevention of that?

Winemakers have been on an unending quest for thousands of years to improve their wines. So where do you draw the over-manipulated line?

Oak barrels which have been in use since Roman times might be considered one of the biggest forms of manipulation of wine flavor. Anyone who has tasted a heavily oaked wine knows how strong that is and how it can override wine's natural flavor.

Fining agents have been used forever to improve clarity or adjust a wine's aroma or flavor.

Historically egg whites, blood, milk, even Irish moss have been used as fining agents.

Some of those are still in use, along with more modern substances including isinglass, bentonite, gelatin, casein, and diatomaceous earth.

Sulphur, which acts both as a preservative and antioxidant in wine, is another hot button. Either way, it's been around for a long time.

While the Romans are often credited with using sulphur to preserve their wines, the first explicit mention of its use in winemaking is in the German Royal Decree of 1487.

This permitted winemakers to burn sulphured woodchips in barrels used for storing wine, helping to preserve their wines.

All of these agents of change, and many more, were in effect long before there even was a new world.

Maybe it's the increased levels of technology that went hand in hand with the emergence of new world wines in the last quarter of the 20th century that cast them in such an industrialized light.

The winemakers at the forefront of California's wine renaissance in 1970 endorsed science as a partner: in the vineyard, in the cellar, and in the lab. Yeast is a good example.

In 1970, there were a few basic strains of yeast for fermentation. Now there are catalogs full, designed for very specific situations, like temperature sensitivity or enhancing tropical aromas.

Maybe it's an image problem. Have Europeans captured the image of the little old winemaker with the rustic cellar while the new world guys get lab coats and microscopes?

It seems unfair to lay all the blame at the feet of new world winemakers. Certainly, California invigorated the entire wine world and in the process, modern technology spread around the globe.

Both old and new world flying winemakers, working on multiple continents, made sure of that.

There are plenty of centrifuges and osmosis machines operating in France.

Oak chips are now legal there as well. There's no shortage of wine in the "European Wine Lake" that is industrialized, manipulated, and commercialized.

When Robin Garr mentions Mega Purple, he is talking about a very dark, very sweet grape concentrate that is added to light red wines to increase color and add mid-palate body. It makes them more full-bodied and to many people, taste better.

If the lowest levels of wine can be improved with modern technology, it's difficult not to see that as a good thing.

Bottles of wine costing less than $10 have never been better.

Mega Purple does come with consequences. It has a strong homogenizing effect.

It makes different wines taste similar to one another. Using it in every wine would be horrible.

But that's unlikely to happen. As the price of a bottle of wine rises, whether it's old or new world, the wine's flavor and individuality becomes its selling point.

It's what makes them stand out. They can't afford to taste like everyone else.

Why would you pay $50 for a wine that tastes the same as your $7 wine?

Wine technology can be used to delineate fine wine flavors or homogenize them. Perhaps it's not so much an old world, new world thing after all. Maybe it's Chez Panise versus Burger King.

Rod Byers, CWE, is a Certified Wine Educator and wine writer as well as a California State Certified Wine Judge. You can find information about this spring's upcoming Sierra College Kaleidoscope Wine Classes at and he can be reached at 530-913-3703.

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