I’ve been doing a little digging of late to try and get to grips with what actually goes on behind the scenes in the production of cheap and mass produced wine. Some of it is quite alarming and although there is no proof or suggestion that any of this is harmful to the health, it seems to me that wine producers should be made to provide information on their labels about what actually goes in the bottle, just like any packaged food.
This has all come to light as a result of the sad trend that seems to be taking hold here in Portugal and in other wine producing countries, France included, whereby “drinkable” red wine can make its way to supermarket shelves within as little as a few months from having been produced.
At one end of the scale, we have producers who nurture their own grapes in their own vineyard and employ mostly natural techniques and ageing procedures in the winery in order to ready their wine for release onto the market.
This may, or may not, involve the use of expensive oak barrels to naturally soften the tannins and enhance the flavour but always involves bottle-ageing in the cellar. This is what we can consider to be real wine – be it good or bad in terms of quality and of our own personal taste.
It is a fact that no “real” red wine, in this sense, can reach shop shelves in drinkable condition in less than two years from the time of harvest, with three years being the acceptable minimum as far as many quality wine producers are concerned.
At the other end of the scale, we have so called winemakers who buy grapes in mass from growers, and have the wine produced at industrial wine factories where cheap wood chips, or even dissolvable wood powder, may replace oak barrels in the fermenting vats to imitate the oaky taste. But this is just the tip of the iceberg.
If you ever thought that that cheap red wine tasted just a bit too fruity, then it probably had a good dose of concentrated red fruit tannin powder added to it, not to mention excessive amounts of Gum Arabic (E number 414) to further enhance the flavour and improve the texture of the wine.
To single out Gum Arabic amongst the many additives, this is to red wine what MSG is to Chinese food, an apparently harmless substance that enhances flavour and texture. Elsewhere in our lives it is used as an emulsifier and stabiliser, in everything from shoe polish to boiled sweets and fizzy drinks.
What concerns me as a wine lover is not so much the use of these additives to artificially soften and sweeten cheap or under-mature wine, but rather the total lack of information to the consumer. There has been talk amongst high quality producers of forcing legislation that would require the ingredients and production techniques to be clearly stated on the label. But the use of Gum Arabic and other additives is so widespread, here in Portugal as much as anywhere else, that this is very unlikely.
There is even an international website supplying everything the wine cheats need to make cheap plonk palatable – www.enartis.com – which interestingly has a fully translated Portuguese version.
To be fair to producers who use these and other artificial flavourings in abundance, they are making palatable wine affordable to those who cannot afford to drink real wine or simply do not appreciate wine beyond being a cheap method of getting drunk.
For those who do care about what they are consuming, a good tip when choosing any wine on the supermarket shelf, wherever you may be, is to establish if it is estate produced and bottled, this is usually mentioned on the label. But this does not mean that even a small producer, here in Portugal or elsewhere, has not laced his cheaper wines with artificial flavourings and additives.
Most importantly, when looking for red wine, look for producers who have held back their wine from a particular vintage by at least two years and avoid anything red from last year’s vintage.
By PATRICK STUART [email protected]