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Natural Wines -- Not

James Laube
Posted: March 14, 2002

The recent news exposing another Burgundy wine scandal highlights the extent of deceit in the world of wine today. In this case, it's the worst kind of fraud. A well-regarded winemaker admitted that he sold wine as "Burgundy," when in fact it came from southern France. Cynics joke about this being a time-honored tradition -- when the grapes aren't ripe in Burgundy, simply augment them with wines from the Rhône. Or, here, the Languedoc.

A few years ago, greedy vintners in California's San Joaquin Valley passed off Barbera -- or other black-skinned grapes -- as Zinfandel. This too was a crime of deceit, a deliberate case of fraud. The fact that the grapes were destined for an innocuous bottling of white Zinfandel only added insult to injury.

Many other times, though, winemakers alter their wines using techniques that are perfectly legal, yet in subtle ways still deceitful. At some levels, these tricks of the trade are essentially harmless, and can even be beneficial. Who cares if a little Syrah is added to a Zinfandel, if it results in a better wine?

There were times when winemakers needed tricks. They needed to be more like doctors or chemists than like the farmers or artisans they are portrayed as today. They needed to combat bacteria in barrels and fight spoilage in tanks.

There are situations when filtering a wine is necessary (and to not do so, foolish). Years ago, many wines were flawed by excessive levels of the yeast brettanomyces (which produces a horsey, leathery character), volatile acidity (that sour, vinegary flavor) and other off-putting defects. Filtration rescued many such wines from disaster.

Esteemed Beaulieu Vineyard winemaker André Tchelistcheff once described how his crew dealt with overripe grapes in the 1940s and 1950s: "Château le pump," he grinned. They added a little water during fermentation to rehydrate the grapes. Winemakers routinely added tartaric acid to boost acidity levels and help stabilize a wine's pH.

Another winemaker once described the technique of backfilling. This process involved adding a little wine from a younger vintage to the previous year's wine to freshen it up. The younger wine, still vibrant with primary fruit flavors and perhaps flashy new toasty oak, gave the older wine a mild cosmetic lift.

Then there are oak chips. When barrel prices became too expensive, many producers turned to oak chips -- which they added to wines aging in stainless steel tanks to impart an oaky flavor.

Last year, in an interview with Wine Spectator's Per-Henrik Mansson, famous Burgundian vintner André Porcheret candidly admitted that he'd routinely added acid, sugar and tannin powder to his Burgundies -- a pronouncement that disturbed me. Chaptalization -- the addition of sugar to fermenting grape musts -- is a well-known (and legal) practice to boost alcohol levels. However, acid adjustments and tannin powder additions aren't always legal, and their surreptitious use is troubling.

In the past decade, we've been lectured to about how wines are made in the vineyard, that soils, exposures, new rootstocks, clones, vine spacing and trellising systems truly matter. We hear winemakers talk about making wines as naturally as possible, about being caretakers and babysitters, not interventionists who might over-make a wine or startle the sleeping infant. We hear about letting grapes ripen to their fullest, to achieve optimum flavor and complexity. Then we find out that when we're not looking, winemakers are using machines such as the spinning cone -- which allows them to remove excessive alcohol (or water or volatile acidity) achieved by those ultraripe grapes, resulting in more concentrated, yet still altered, wine.

For all the talk we hear from winemakers about making natural wines, there's a lot going on that's not very natural at all. I'm not so naive as to think winemakers should ignore tools or techniques that ensure higher quality wines. Yet I'm starting to believe that we'd be better off knowing when some of these techniques or additives are being used. I think most wine drinkers would welcome true alcohol levels on labels, instead of approximations, and alongside the "unfined or unfiltered" wording on the label, maybe a note about whether the wine was spun through the spinning cone. At least then we'd know.

James Laube, a Napa Valley-based senior editor of Wine Spectator, has been with the magazine for 19 years.

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