Now Remember, Concentrate
By Matt Kramer, columnist
Except for a drop in the French franc, there's nothing wine lovers like more than a good, juicy opportunity to agonize over whether what we're really tasting is, well, what we're really tasting. So have I got one for you.
What you're about to read is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but unproven scuttlebutt. It's happening, all right. But no one knows the scope or scale of it--or likely can know, short of extensive, expensive laboratory analysis. Nevertheless, it's the subject of no little speculation and finger-pointing in the California wine industry. It concerns concentrate.
What is concentrate? It's just what you think it is: wine that's been reduced, like a sauce, to eliminate most of the water, leaving behind the extract. Now, anybody who's ever made a sauce reduction on his or her stove knows that when you reduce a sauce, what emerges is quite different from the original. French chefs have long made what's called a glace de viande, a meat-stock reduction that has the consistency of Jell-O when cooled. A tablespoon or so of glace de viande is added to a regular sauce to give it extra oomph.
This is exactly what wine concentrate is all about, too. You've got a thin little wine--or even an already hefty one--and you want to make it seem richer? No problem. You just add concentrate. In a matter of seconds, your skinny, sand-kicked-in-its-face wine is bulked up and ready to take on the bruisers in a blind tasting.
This is theory. Now for practice. According to the scuttlebutt, an increasing number of supposedly high-end California wineries are concentrate junkies. People notice, after all, the growing number of--ahem--unusually well-endowed Chardonnays and Cabernets. How did they get so bulky so fast? (Especially when vineyard yields are increasing rather than decreasing.\
Sports fans will find an obvious parallel here. All those muscles a-poppin' between one season and the next. How'd they do that? Winemakers, like athletes, give similar answers. "Better training techniques," they say. With wine, they say things like, "new yeast strains" ... "new trellising techniques" ... "more nuanced computer-controlled presses." The bag of tricks bulges.
But I guarantee you that no winemaker will ever put his arm around your shoulder and say, "Son, lemme tell you something. You're old enough now to know about these things. Not everything you see is real. Know what I mean? You don't? All right, that wine you so like for its rich, powerful fruit--well, it got that way by using concentrate. It was a good-enough wine on its own, but these days, in order to leap out in those big blind tastings, you gotta be big. Forget finesse. Nobody ever looks at a scrawny wine twice."
So who's using concentrate? Ah, that's the question. Believe me, nobody's admitting nothing. Would you? After all, though there's nothing intrinsically bad or unhealthful about the addition of concentrate--quite the opposite--it still isn't the image of winemaking that wineries seek to project. There's an underhanded element to it, a quick-fix aspect that smacks of deception.
For starters, though, it's a pretty good bet that many, if not most, bulk wines see some concentrate. For such wines it's a swell thing. After all, they're not trading on fine nuances. A good, fruity swig is all they can hope to offer, and a dollop of concentrate to help plump out an otherwise hollow blend is just what the wine doctor ordered.
The real question is: Who, at the high end, is surreptitiously doing concentrate? Hard to say. But I'll offer this much--next time you taste a Chardonnay or Cabernet (among other wines) that seems too rich-tasting to be true to the vineyard, you might want to think twice.
Yes, it's possible to create hard-won, genuinely rich wines by measures such as severe pruning for very low vineyard yields. And yes, there are extractive techniques in winemaking that can wring out yet more fruitiness.
But low yields are extremely expensive. And winery manipulations are practical only on a small scale. Once you're cranking out a good number of cases, you have neither the time nor the inclination to pursue such fine-tuning. It's just so much easier to add a dollop of concentrate. And who's the wiser? Good question.
This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Monday by a different Wine Spectator editor. This week we hear from Matt Kramer, in a column also appearing in the Nov. 30 Wine Spectator. To read past Unfiltered, Unfined columns, go to the archives. And for an archive of senior editor James Laube's columns, visit Laube on Wine.