Category Archives: science

Take Two Glasses of Wine and Call me in the Morning

Yes, same name. I'm not quite as saintly.

Yes, same name. I’m not quite as saintly.

“Drink no longer water, but use a little wine for thy stomach’s sake and thine often infirmities.” (1 Timothy 5:23)

If even the Bible backs up the health benefits of wine, is it really true that wine isn’t just harmless, but might actually do your health some good? That’s a common suggestion among wine-lovers, and there appear to be some studies that back up the idea. And for a while at least, wine was suspected as a primary cause of the French Paradox.

Those lucky French people, despite a diet that features a high amount of saturated fats, are known to have a lower prevalence of coronary disease than people in other places. When scientists first realized that, one of the most popular suggested explanations for this health benefit was all the red wine the French drink. You can imagine how sales of red wine increased in North America after that theory came out. But despite the known good effects of certain ingredients in the wine, there just didn’t seem to be enough of those ingredients to create such a drastic health effect. And when you realize that on average, a French person drinks only a couple of bottles more per year than a North American, well, there goes that theory. Darn it anyway.

But don’t throw the health effects out with the wine bottle! All is not yet lost. Because despite the crash and burn of red wine as a theoretical cause of the French Paradox, there is still some evidence suggesting health benefits to moderate alcohol intake. And yes, those benefits relate to cardiovascular health. So red wine may be back on the menu after all–maybe.

What you really have to watch is overenthusiastic endorsements of the current scientific studies. Online media outlets have been touting an outrageous headline lately: Is Drinking Wine Better Than Going To The Gym? According To Scientists, Yes! These stories all quote a Unversity of Alberta study that says a glass of red wine is as good as an hour at the gym.

Except, actually: no. According to Jason Dyck, lead author of that study,

Dyck’s study was published more than two years ago. It examined whether resveratrol, a compound found in grapes and other foods, can increase exercise capacity for those already exercising. 

“We didn’t use any red wine in our study nor did we recommend not going to the gym,” said Dyck.

The study did conclude that resveratrol could help maximize exercise benefits for people with restricted exercise capacity, like heart failure patients.

To be effective, the compound would need to be used like a performance-enhancing supplement, with concentrations far beyond a glass of wine.

“To get the same amount that we’re giving patients or rodents you’d have to drink anywhere from 100 to a thousand bottles a day,” said Dyck.

Now get all these drank by lunch: 90.000 more bottles to go!

Now get all these drank by lunch: 90,000 more bottles to go!

In most studies done so far, even taking into account the possibility of moderate drinkers having a better income and healthier lifestyle, and factoring out non-drinkers who had quit because they had already ruined their health with alcoholism, there seems to be a correlation between improved health outcomes for moderate drinkers. They are less prone to heart disease.

Red wine will not solve your problems, kitty.

Red wine will not solve your problems, kitty.

Pay attention to that word, “moderate,” though, and don’t rush out and buy or make an excess of wine or other alcohol “for your health.” Too much of a good thing can reverse all those good effects. And we all know that excessive drinking leads to liver disease, heart failure, and even certain cancers, not to mention accidents and injuries caused by drunkenness. When the biblical writer says “a little wine” rather than “jugs and jugs of the stuff,” he knows what he’s talking about. It’s fine to have a large, well-stocked cellar, but you don’t have to drink the whole thing by next Wednesday.

The effects of moderate amounts of alcohol on the body are many: it helps reduce blood pressure and reduces insulin levels. It increases the levels of good cholesterol (HDL) while reducing the levels of the bad kind (LDL). It contains antioxidants that fight cancer, and it helps prevent blood clotting. But what about that reference to the stomach in the Bible verse? Does wine help the digestive system too?

Studies seem to support that idea also. Wine apparently combats certain food-borne pathogens quite well, either because of the acidity or because of the alcohol itself going to work directly on the bacteria. It even works against the bugs that cause ulcers.

But it’s important not to read too much into the health benefits. After all, something as fun and  delicious as wine shouldn’t be completely perfect.

NEW PRODUCT RELEASE, TIM VANDERGRIFT WINE KITS

April 1, 2015

Conjectural Technology Laboratories, a division of Tim Vandergrift Worldwide, is excited to announce the ultimate kit winemaking product, one that will revolutionise both the the use and the appreciation of wine. A decade of research and development has produced the ultimate device for detecting and defining the most subtle nuances of wine, the Beverage Vaporiser.

The Beverage Vaporiser system (also known as the Volcano for it’s cone-shaped appearance) allows the user to

  • Drink wine as young as 10 days old
  • Taste 100% of the nuances of any wine, regardless of type or quality
  • Identify not only grape variety and style like a wine professional, but even to name the terroir, region grown and even the vineyard, with no training or study!
volcano-vaporizer

System shown: red wine vaporiser, white wine vaporiser and two Vaporbotas.

“The concept is actually very simple”, says Dr. Ann Credulous, Director of the Conjectural Technology Lab for Tim Vandergrift. “Wine is a solution of organic compounds, with many volatile fractions–esters, ketones, aldehydes, thiols, monoterpenes, pyrazines, etc. For the most part The majority of volatile compounds responsible for aroma combine with sugars in the wine to form odorless glycosides. Through the process of hydrolysis, caused by enzymes or acids in the wine, they revert into an aromatic form. The act of tasting wine is essentially the act of smelling these vaporized aroma compounds. What we have done is found a way to duplicate the hydrolytic process that releases these aromas with tuned heat and vibration in a volatizing chamber.”

While the concept is simple, the results are anything but.

“Olfactory receptors cells, Dr. Credulous continues, “Each sensitive to a different aroma, pick up these compounds and transfer the information to the brain by way of the olfactory bulb. In the 1980s there was renewed focus in studying the correlation between aroma/flavor compounds in grapes and the resulting quality of wine. Scientists were able to use chromatograph-mass spectrometers to identify volatile aroma compounds in various grape varieties. It was our research into the action of the gas chromatograph chamber action that lead to the discovery of induced hyrdrolysis.”

WineCano

Hydrolysis Chamber not shown for security reasons.

The Beverage Vaporiser works like this: the wine to be sampled is loaded into the Volcano and is put through the patented Chromatographic Hydrolysis Chamber. There, through a tuned system of temperature, resonance frequencies and aetheric distribution algorithms, the wine is turned into a richly textured, intensely flavourful vapour. Inhaled gently, this vapour reveals every aromatic compound and every bit of the bouquet and nuance of your wine. According to Credulous, that’s the key to identifying wine like a pro.

“By extracting and concentrating all of the aromas of wine in a small volume, they’re more pronounced. Anyone who has ever struggled to identify a particular character in a wine will be able to instantly smell blackberry in a Cabernet, or cat urine in a Sauvignon Blanc! Using pre-set algorithms in the Volcano, wines will release aromatic profiles identical to famous wines and vintages, from ’47 Mouton to 2001 Screaming Eagle. Training your palate has never been easier!”

And there’s more. According the Director of Customer Experience William Nelson,

“Because we tune the precise type and quantity of volatiles that are released, we ensure that only the finest, richest aromas come out. We can make an inexpensive or very young wine release the same aromatic character of a first-growth or Premier Cru wine that’s been aged for years, even decades.”

William Nelson

Director of Customer Experience, William Nelson (above) demonstrates prototype portable beverage vaporiser at the Montana Cattlemen’s Wine and Steer Show.

“But that’s only the beginning: because ethanol is a volatile compound we can suppress the hydrolisation frequency of alcohol in the machine–the vapour is as delicious as wine, but won’t lead to intoxication or drunkenness! The whole point of wine appreciation is to identify the character of a wine, to appreciate it for itself. By eliminating the effects of alcohol on the nervous system we can extend that pleasure indefinitely, and consumers can use as much wine as they want, without introducing toxins into their body or straining their liver.”

vapour head

Ease up off that Cotes du Rhone, chum!

Of course, consumers can set the machine to deliver ethanol if they wish, by selecting the correct menu item on the touchscreen and agreeing to the End User License Agreement.

While there are plans for several types of vaporisers, including the portable prototype shown above, the Volcano is the first wine ‘Vape’ being launched. The Volcano Classic quality is first rate, and the build quality is incredibly durable: it’s made by a German company, Snortzen-Pickel, who offer a 3 year warranty standard on every purchase. Both the aromatic tuning and chamber size are adjustable to suit your needs–it can vaporise up to three litres of wine at one time, allowing you to serve two dozen guests easily.

Ann Credulous

Dr. Credulous in front of the first Beverage Vaporiser prototype.

The Beverage Vaporiser Volcano will be available in late September, timed to use in conjunction with the 2015 harvest. “We’re extremely proud of this product,” Says Ann Credulous, “Drinking wine is now a thing of the past–and rather than just sniffing a vintage like cavemen, we can literally inhale every drop!”

It’s a brave new world for wine!

Send Lawyers, Guns, and Wine

arsenic

Arsenic, old Ace

I’m the innocent bystander
Somehow I got stuck
Between the rock
And a hard place
And I’m down on my luck
Yes I’m down on my luck
Well I’m down on my luck

Warren Zevon, Lawyers, Guns and Money

Warren definitely put his finger on it: in the face of intransigent problems sometimes strong solutions are required, like legal advice, firearms, or piles of cash. On the other hand, if you’re on the receiving end of such a solution, sometimes a bit of critical thinking is the best cure you could hope for.

Case in point: a class-action lawsuit has been launched, alleging that “There are very high levels of arsenic in top-selling wine”. According to the CBS news story, BeverageGrades, a company that performs laboratory analysis of wine,

(Hicks) tested more than 1,300 bottles of wine. Almost a quarter of them had levels higher than the EPA’s maximum allowable amount of arsenic in drinking water: 10 parts per billion. No one can say for sure why, but Hicks noticed a pattern.

“The lower the price of wine on a per-liter basis, the higher the amount of arsenic,” he said.

This sounds terribly alarming. And, it gets worse:

CBS News took those results to epidemiologist Allan Smith, associate director of the Arsenic Health Effects research program at U.C. Berkeley.

“These are about two to three times in this particular sample, the drinking water standard, and they vary, they fluctuated, but some of them were up to three, four or five times the drinking water standard,” Smith said.

Smith said 50 parts per billion of arsenic — the highest level found in one of the bottles Hicks tested — can be deadly over time.

Even though “parts per billion” seems like a very small amount, Smith said “Arsenic is highly toxic; it’s astonishing.”

“It has as many effects inside the body as cigarette smoking does,” Smith said.

The obvious conclusion that Hicks and CBS want you to draw is WINE WILL KILL YOU AND EVERYTHING YOU LOVE! PANIC! HURRY UP AND PANIC ABOUT WINE! 

It sounds terrible. And it’s meant to, because the guy who helped gin up the lawsuit stands to profit from it. You see, BeverageGrades doesn’t offer lab services for wineries based on their need to make biochemically correct wine. It’s business model is one of ‘certification’. For a fee, they’ll test your wine and reassure consumers that it’s ‘safe’. From their website:

BeverageGrades is a private company offering lab testing, quality assurance and certification of alcoholic beverages for suppliers, restaurants, retailers and ultimately, the end consumer.

But you can’t ask the consumer to pay for the testing–it’s too expensive on an ad hoc basis. So it’s up to BeverageGrades to get money out of wineries. Unfortunately, according to the CBS report

He took the test results to some of those wine companies.

“Most wine companies, when I mention arsenic and wine in the same sentence, literally almost hung up the phone on me,” he said.

The next step, he said, was to supply the data to a law firm.

“He was trying to get their attention; he was trying to blow the whistle on them,” attorney Brian Kabateck said.

Initially this sounds horrifying, and smacks of coverups, shady deals and would seem to suggest a scenario of a crusading laboratory saving the public from a campaign to poison them. But this doesn’t hold up when you start looking at the facts. The first is that BeverageGrades will profit from increased testing using their certification, which amounts to a strong-arm job, or it will profit as a paid expert witness in the lawsuit on behalf of ‘consumers’.  To the point, BeverageGrades issued a press release:

BeverageGrades believes that retailers need a screening and certification model that allows them to assure their customers of the purity of all of the alcoholic beverages they sell, and particularly their control or private label brands.

And that is what Hicks sells: relief from fear. If it happens to be the relief of fear caused by an irresponsible and valueless lawsuit that he ginned up with a bent premise, then all the more power to him for a creative way to increase business.

There is some question, however, if he was actually the discreet and altruistic consumer advocate he makes himself out to be. From the very good article by Snopes on this:

Wine Spectator contacted some of the wine brands named in the lawsuit, many of whom stated that Hicks had made no effort to contact them before filing the class action, although he did send out a press release to some wine vendors offering his company’s testing services to them:

[A wine company] spokesman said he had not heard of any named winery contacted by Hicks before the lawsuit was filed. The same day the suit was filed, BeverageGrades sent a press release to certain retailers offering its services for a “screening and certification model that allows them to assure their customers of the purity of all the alcoholic beverages they sell.”

Well, well, well.

A very troubling issue is the conflation of safe standards for arsenic for water and for wine. There is no federally mandated standard for wine. Sure, drinking water is set at 10 PPB, and the average adult drinks two litres of water per day, and furthermore uses the water to cook, make other beverages, and to wash and bathe. It makes sense to set drinking water standards very low.

However, anybody drinking two litres of wine per day, and using it exclusively to cook, make coffee and bathe is living a very odd lifestyle. They’ll be dead of acute alcohol poisoning or the effects of chronic overconsumption of alcohol before there are any measurable effects from arsenic on their system, so comparing water to wine is a waste of time.

SHUT UP AND KILL ME

SHUT UP AND KILL ME

And the amount of arsenic you could consume in wine isn’t even in the same league as other sources. For instance, the FDA limit for daily inorganic arsenic intake from shellfish (mussels, clams, and oysters) is 30ppm (parts per million) versus 30ppb (parts per billion) in apple or pear juice. That’s right: you can consume one thousand times more arsenic in a bowl of cioppino than you can from a juice box–or a glass of wine.

That is, if going is a thing you want to do, eh

That is, if going is a thing you want to do, eh

Interestingly, Canada has a standard for Arsenic in wine: 100 PPB. I haven’t been able to find out how that level was determined, but for the moment I’m assuming “common sense”, based on levels cited for drinking water extrapolated for wine consumption’. According to Stephen Cater, director of quality assurance for the Liquor Control Board of Ontario:

In the past year alone, the LCBO quality assurance laboratory tested more than 11,900 wines for arsenic levels, including 1543 wines from California. All of the wines from California that the LCBO lab tested and subsequently offered for sale were below the maximum allowable limit for arsenic. We have not observed elevated arsenic levels in US wines compared to what is found in wines from other regions and countries.

11,900, last time I checked, was a much higher number than the 1300 Wicks tested, and the fact that world wines are comparable to US wines is significant, since you’d expect to see a spike if indeed cheap US wines were heavily contaminated.

Which brings us to the bottom line: is this a real story, or is it a health panic induced by an unscrupulous laboratory and a predatory lawyer, for their personal profit? That will have to come out in court because you can bet there will be counter-suits for damages and some serious legal scrapping.

Don't you hurt me baby

Don’t you hurt me baby

What we can tell right now is this: the amount of arsenic in wine won’t materially contribute to the overall levels of arsenic taken in by the average consumer, unless they’re actively trying to kill themselves with wine. Should we be concerned about the food and drink we consume? Always! But there’s a time to panic and a time to use common sense and reason to navigate the world, and this is one of the latter.

Now if I may be excused, I’m going to go drink an entire bottle of wine, because I feel I may be low on important trace elements, like happiness, contentment and joy.

Update, 3/21/15:

Days late yet still contributing to the spread of Hick’s misinformation scaremongering, Mother Jones wrote yet another non-journalistic, click-bait ‘article’ with a terroristic headline. If you’d like to share the disdain, you can read it here.

At least the person who cut and pasted the clickbaitery published an addendum. Here it is:

Wine industry groups have begun to contest the lawsuit’s contentions and motive. The California wine trade group, the Wine Institute, released a statement saying, “While there are no established limits in the U.S., several countries, including the European Union, have established limits of 100 parts per billion or higher for wine. California wine exports are tested by these governments and are below the established limits.” A representative of The Wine Group, one of the defendants, says that the plaintiffs “decided to file a complaint based on misleading and selective information in order to defame responsible California winemakers, create unnecessary fear, and distort and deceive the public for their own financial gain.”

Small mercies.

The Enemy Without

fruit-fly

A face only nobody could love

Summer is here and for winemakers that means one thing: the inevitable return of our sworn enemy, Drosophila melanogaster, the common fruit fly. Minute little flying monkeys of doom, they’re hard to exclude from your winemaking areas, and while they’re easy to kill, by the time you’ve swatted one thirteen more have materialised out of thin air, looking for a free meal—females lay 400 eggs each, and they mature in as little as 7 days!

The reason why we need to be concerned over the little monsters isn’t just that they’re unsightly and chewy when you discover one inside a mouthful of Chardonnay. No, it’s their other name we need to think of, ‘Vinegar Fly’. The little blighters are filthy with acetobacteria, the organism that turns our delicious alcohol in to vinegar.

fly infestation

Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.

How to combat ‘em? First, understand that they don’t eat fruit: they eat mainly yeast. When they smell carbon dioxide and alcohol, they think it’s a piece of rotting fruit where they can lay eggs and get a delicious meal. When they smell a fermenting carboy, it’s their equivalent of a Vegas buffet ten thousand miles long.

Anybody who has ever worked as a bartender over the summer months knows the sad and icky truth: you come in for the first shift of the day and any bottles that have been left with an open pour-spout (‘speed spout’) overnight will need to be poured through a coffee filter to extract the little winged corpses from their watery graves. If a fermenting carboy smells a buffet, and bottle of vodka smells like ten tons of chocolate cake.

Step one in managing these horrific little pests is exclusion. You can’t keep them out of your house and your fermenting area, so you’ll need to exclude them from the wine itself. Always do covered fermentations. The commonest fermentation vessel used to start kit wines in the US is a 7.9 gallon (30 litre) bucket with a tight fitting lid and a port to plug in an airlock. By keeping the wine sealed and airlocked, you’ll deny entry.

Second, when your wine goes to the carboy, make sure you keep that airlock topped up with water. Some folks use sulphite, and while that’s mostly harmless the sulphite usually oxidises off in a few days into plain water. Other folks want the sanitising power of alcohol and load the airlock up with Everclear or grain alcohol—this only attracts the enemy!

Third, you’ll need to wipe up every single little tiny spill of wine or juice immediately, and sulphite the area to prevent any residue from getting a yeast film going on it. Then make sure you wash your cloths or discard your paper towels in a tightly sealed receptacle—the cloth used to wipe up the juice will become a source of attraction.

Fourth, if you have to wash all racked primary fermenters or carboys (those with lees and even a small amount of cloudy wine in them) immediately. If you can’t get to the right away, pop the bung and airlock on again.

Fifth, if you filter your wine (always a good idea—I’ll talk about that in a later blog) break down and clean your filter right away, and seal the used pads in a plastic bag before discarding them: they smell just dandy to fruit flies.

Flypaper only works on fruit flies by accident. Plus, some of the stuff is toxic as all get-out, and not good for winemaking areas. You can set up a wasp trap (available from hardware stores) for them. Normally they’re filled with fruit juice or other sweet liquid, but that doesn’t impress a fruit fly. Fill it with the magic formula: apple cider vinegar with a couple of drops of liquid dish soap. The apple cider vinegar drives them to a gustatory frenzy, while the dish soap removes the surface tension of the liquid: when they fly in and hit it, they drown right away—poof!

You can also, check out natural pyrethrin-based insecticides: they’re made from plant oils, are mostly safe and can be used in food prep areas. Never use any other kind of insecticide around wine or food prep areas! Triple-check to make sure you’ve got pyrethrin and not the synthetic pyrethroid, which is much more persistent and killier. Pyrethroids are bad for the environment and can be toxic to children and pets, especially kitty-cats, who lack the enzyme to break them down, and can rapidly succumb to pyrethroid toxicity. No kitty should be collateral damage to a fruit fly!

It should be noted that cleanly made wines that have fully fermented and are sulphited to an appropriate level (follow the manufacturer’s instructions) are fairly resistan against colonisation by acetobacteria. Sulphite in particular is a good bacterial inhibitor for this organism.

But there’s always that chance: a missed sulphite addition, a little extra oxygen pick-up in fermentation, one lone fruit fly wings in and . . . well, that’s thirty bottles of wine you can’t even pour on your salad (wild acetobacter fermentations make a kind of vinegar that tastes mostly like nail-polish remover).

Why to Filter

filtered

Well, that clears things up.

You can find any number of articles on filtering wine—a quick search on the inter-webs yields something like forty-four million hits—and probably double that number of opinions on the topic. Winemaker magazine has run many articles on filtering, including an excellent one by their regular kits columnist, what’s-his-name. So there’s no dearth of information on the topic.

What there is, in fact, is a surfeit of information on the mechanics and execution of filtering, the how-to side of the process. What you don’t see very often is the other side, the philosophical, the ‘why-to’ side, or the ‘why-not-to’ side. That’s up three sides now, making it perilously close to geometry, but there are a bunch of issues surrounding filtering that come up over and over again in winemaking discussions.

            1. Do I have to filter my wine?
            2. What are the benefits to filtering, long and short-term?
            3. What are the potential downsides to filtering?
            4. Does filtering strip colour, flavour or aroma from a wine?
            5. Do I have to use fining agents if I’m going to filter anyway?
            6. What’s the best filter to use?

With these questions usually come some very strong opinions. In some cases the strongest opinions come from people who’ have a little knowledge and the proverbial danger that comes with that, but opinion isn’t limited to them: some of the most knowledgeable winemakers, making some of the most expensive and well regarded wines in the world have very strong opinions as well, and some of them directly contradict each other.

In fact, the Oxford Companion to Wine (full disclosure: I’m a contributor to that august tome) even lists filtration as a ‘controversial’ subject. From the OCtW:

Filtration of fine wines is a controversial issue. While it may be a necessity for ordinary commercial wines, it is widely thought that too heavy a filtration can indeed rob a fine wine of some of its complexity and capacity to age, not to mention some loss of colour, particularly a red wine as subtle as some fine red Burgundy. Some commentators and winemakers claim that filtration of any sort is harmful: it is not uncommon to see the term ‘unfiltered’ used as a positive marketing term.

Gadzooks! Loss of complexity! Loss of capacity to age! Any filtering harmful!  Is there no upside to filtering? Well, maybe, as the entry goes on to say:

However, the possible negative effects of filtration should be weighed against the very real risk of microbial contamination or instability, particularly where perfect storage or transport conditions cannot be guaranteed. An unfiltered wine throws a much heavier crust, or sediment, than one that has been filtered.

What to think? Well, first of all, keep in mind that the venerable Oxford is almost exclusively concerned with commercial winemaking. Out of thousands of entries there’s only one on home winemaking, and until I re-wrote it, it never mentioned kit wines and only devoted half a sentence to ‘concentrate’, so their opinion might be a little fluffy around the edges, not close to the rich, meaty centre of winemaking where us consumer winemakers make our bones. We don’t need a marketing department to tell us how our wine tastes when there’s a perfectly good glass right there at our elbow.

Second, I’m discussing only the filtering systems and processes available to home winemakers–yes, cross-flow filters are like amazing magic boxes that can accomplish astounding feats of clarity, but until they drop below $20,000 and require less than 100 gallons to prime the pump, they’re not going to be of any use to real, live home winemakers.

1) Do I have to filter my wine?

Nope, at the end of the day filtration isn’t necessary. In the 10,000 year-plus history of winemaking, filtration has only been possible in the last century or so, after the advent of industrial processing and a firm understanding of the microbiology of wine (thanks, Louis Pasteur!).

With modern winemaking technology, wine kits come almost completely free of suspended solid material. Precisely calculated fining agent use, in the form of bentonite, Chitosan, isinglass and kieselsol, deals with any colloids (like proteins) and 99% of the yeast in a very short time, leaving the wine clean and quite clear.

So you don’t have to filter if you a) don’t have a filter, b) don’t want to go to the trouble, or c) don’t  care. You’ll still have clear, drinkable wine.

2) What are the benefits to filtering, long and short-term?

In the short term, you will be able to expect what the industry calls ‘star bright’ wines. I said the finings leave the wine clean and quite clear, but not completely clear. After fining there can still be tens of thousands or even millions of yeast cells still floating around in your wine. There can also be unstable colloids floating around. These materials will take the edge off of clarity. There are two analogies that fit pretty well here. First, if you’re an eyeglass wearer, you know well that you can look through your spectacles and see clearly almost all of the time. But if you take them off at any random interval and have a look at the lenses, they can be pretty smeary and icky. A quick polish will allow you to see more clearly and accurately.

The second analogy works even for the perfectly-sighted: the difference between a well-fined wine and a filtered wine is the difference between a freshly washed car and a freshly waxed car. They both look good, and they both look shiny, but the waxed car really looks spectacular, and is much more appealing to most people who will look at it.

Long-term you can look forward to greater stability. Stability in this case is defined as the wine not changing in flavour or appearance during storage in the bottle. As the Oxford notes above, there are issues with microbiological stability and with deposits or sediments in unfiltered wine.

Microbiological stability merits a mention, but not too much concern. Since all kit wines are pasteurised at packaging, there are very few potential contamination organisms that will show up in your batch. The one place where filtration provides extra protection is for wines that have residual sugar, or sugar added post-fermentation via ‘F-packs’, ‘sweetening packs’ or ‘Süsse-reserve’. Putting these wines through a filter will help reduce the yeast population below the level at which they can ferment sugar into carbon dioxide and alcohol, keeping your sweet wine from turning into fizzy, bottle-shattering dry wine. Toss in a bit of sorbate to keep the remaining yeast from breeding back to culture strength (from where they can start making fizz-and-booze again) and you’ve got increased stability over the long term.

Another long-term benefit is in the appearance of the wine over time. Deposits and sediments can (and indeed, almost always will) form in fined but unfiltered wines over a long enough timeline. These deposits show up in reds as a thin layer of purple or red material on the bottom of the bottle or in a line along the side. In whites they appear as white-ish or beige. They can be dead yeast cells, polymerised phenols (a kind of tannin that’s gooped up and settled out) or (in reds) pigmented tannins. Pigmented tannins occur when tannins bind with anthocyanins.

If you’re getting a sore head from all the polysyllabic terms here, tannins are (mostly) the compounds in red wine that give astringency and mouth-feel, and anthocyanins are colour compounds. The process is insanely complex, from a chemical point of view, but when they bind together over time they can settle out as a very fine, almost paint-like layer of muck.

Filter, and you’re not likely to see any fall-out in your bottles over the medium (three to 5 years) term, and much lower levels after that.

3) What are the potential downsides to filtering?

Surprisingly, they’re pretty much the same as the downsides for any handling or processing operation in winemaking, from racking to fining and stabilising: the chance that you’ll introduce a contaminant or too much oxygen into the wine, causing an infection or oxidation.

Both of these are easily avoided. First and foremost, as in all aspects of life, with winemaking cleanliness is next to goodliness. Every piece of equipment that comes into contact with your wine must be clean—free of visible dirt or debris—and sanitised—treated with a chemical sanitiser to kill or suppress bacteria. Filter machines often have a lot of hoses, clamps, crevices and irregular surfaces, so be sure to disassemble them and give ‘em a good scrubbing, treat them with sulphite or other suitable winemaking sanitiser/suppressant, and rinse the dickens out of them.

As for oxygen, filtering agitates wine as it travels through pumps, hoses and filter media, but doesn’t necessarily introduce oxygen into it. Most filter set-ups are positively pressurised, meaning they use a pump to force wine down a hose and through the system. If there is a leak somewhere in the filter between the pump and the carboy the wine is going into, it’s going to squirt wine out, not suck air in.

The only real danger that using a filter will add oxygen is if you run the output hose down the side of the receiving carboy, where it can fan out and expose an enormous surface area to oxygen pick up—gently place the output hose directly into the bottom of the carboy instead, and allow the tip to submerge as it fills, keeping everything as quiet as possible.

What you really have to watch is that there is sufficient free sulphur dioxide (metabisulphite) in the wine to protect it during handling. This will be the amount included in the kit, added in full, at the appropriate time. Just a hint: if your kit has a note in the instructions about optional added sulphite for ageing terms over six months, add it before you filter, even if you’re going to drink the wine up sooner. This is prudent because the very small extra amount the instructions ask for, usually a quarter-teaspoon, which is less than a gram and a half, won’t change the flavour or aroma of the wine, but will make sure the extra handling that filtering represents doesn’t cause harm.

3) Does filtering strip colour, flavour or aroma from a wine?

Yes and no. But mostly no, and the aroma and flavour part is strictly temporary, and the colour part is good. I’ll explain, but first I’ll qualify: I’m telling you the strict truth, for people using filters available to people making their own wine at home. You might read contradicting opinions somewhere else but keep in mind two things: first, some of those opinions will be from people who have access to commercial filtering equipment and processes, which can be vastly more effective at removing things from wine. Second, they’re probably wrong.

filters

Magenta wine?

Colour

The kinds of filters available to home winemakers operate on the micron scale, with the tightest, most efficient filters stopping somewhere above 0.2µ, about two-tenths of a micron. Your typical yeast cell is around 0.45µ, and a freshly budded daughter cell (they grow up so fast, sniff) is down at the 0.2µ mark. It’s far more common to see filters that allow the passage of material as large as two to four microns in size.

Colour molecules, the aforementioned anthocyanins, are not on the micron size. They are so very much smaller that their structure can’t be seen with a microscope. They’re so tiny that in fact they will sail straight through a filter pad or cartridge entirely unimpeded—you can’t filter them out.

Which begs the question, for anyone who has ever used a filter on a red wine, why do the pads come out stained with colour? Those stains aren’t pure, happy colour compounds: they are colour compounds that have already bound to other kinds of goo in the wine. When bound to tannin, they’ll fall out later as a deposit (mentioned above) and when bound to a colloid, they’ll fall out as sediment. This is a vast over-simplification (I specialise in those) but the core truth is that you cannot filter out colour with civilian filter pads—not any colour that wouldn’t fall out on its own anyway.

dog nose

  This nose knows nosing–and dogs know filtering doesn’t ‘strip’ aroma. 

Flavour and Aroma

What goes for colour compounds goes for flavour and aroma: they’re just too small to stick to filter pads. And yet anyone who has ever filtered a wine has almost certainly noted that it tastes notably less distinct and aromatic post-filtering.

This is a complex phenomenon wine, referred to under the catch-all phrase ‘bottle shock’. A couple of explanations are popular. First, a dose of sulphite (usually added at bottling or filtering) mutes the flavour and aroma of the wine. Seems plausible enough, and easily observed by anyone who has ever tasted a wine right after sulphiting it.

Second, if a wine gets a significant dose of oxygen during handling, some of the oxygen can combine with ethanol and other alcohols to form aldehydes, which really cramp a wine’s aromatic styling. The good news is, both of these conditions are temporary. Give the wine a few weeks rest, and often only 24 hours will do it, and the aromas and flavours snap back into focus, good as new, with filtering not to blame after all.

I said earlier that anyone who disagrees with me is wrong. I still think that, but there is a way in which they’re reaching towards a sort-of truth about filtering and removing desirable compounds from wine. When a wine, particularly a red one, is very young, you want to get it off of the gross lees and then the fine lees quite rapidly, with several rackings taking place in the first year. This prevents yeast cells from decaying and transferring their flavour into the wine, and prevents all kinds of grape pulp and vineyard muck from getting funky as well. But you don’t want to strip the wine clear of all compounds right away. There are extremely complex chemical reactions and biochemical processes that can benefit from the presence of solid material dissolved and suspended in the wine as it goes through elevage (upbringing).

That doesn’t add up to an indictment of filtering, however, it just means that you should filter as the last step in your process before you go to the bottle—too early and you might cheat an ageing/elevage process of some compounds that could help.

cloudy

This wine should not be filtered–it isn’t clear enough.

5) Do I have to use fining agents if I’m going to filter anyway?

YES! You can’t filter a wine that isn’t already really, really clear. The amount of yeast and good in suspension would clog a filter up so badly that you’d spend more than the cost of the wine kit itself in filter pads before you got to the end.

If we go back to the car analogy, you can’t wax a car that hasn’t already been washed thoroughly: waxing isn’t to remove dirt it’s to put a final polish on the car. Filtering isn’t to clear wine it’s to put a final polish on it right before bottling.

superjet

Buon Vino Super Jet: excellent balance of speed and efficiency

6) What’s the best filter to use?

The most common filters available to home users are depth filters with plate and frames and positive displacement pumps. This means they’ve got some kind of structure of layered plates that trap cellulose pads in between them and the wine is forced through the pads by a pump that pushes it down a tube. There are others, including ones that use a vacuum to pull the wine through a plate and frame, membrane filters that use a setup identical to home water-filter cartridges, either with a pump or a vacuum, and even manual ones that rely on gravity to dribble the wine through a pad set-up.

filter big

Cue Jeremy Clarkson, ‘MORE POWER!’

Commercial wine filters can be much more complex, but most of them you can’t afford to switch on for less than a few hundred gallons of wine—a single 6-gallon/23 litre batch wouldn’t even prime some of the pumps. Things like cross-flow filters, centrifuge decanters, pressure leaf filters and rotary drum vacuum filters are amazing technology, but for most of us rather like swatting a housefly by dropping a mountain range on it.

I’m big on positive displacement plate and frame filters. They’re simple, very easy to set up and use, widely available, and ideal for our purposes. They come in sizes ranging from just smaller than a toaster, suitable for one or perhaps two batches at a go, to models big enough to do 20 gallons in a reasonably short time, and others intended for higher volumes that can filter a carboy sparkling clear in under 30 seconds. I own examples of all three, and they’re fine machines.

They’re called depth filters because the pads used in them act like a sponge, soaking up the wine and wringing it out clean on the other side, with the ‘sponge’ part retaining the cloudy goop. This makes them capable of taking quite a bit of muck out of the wine before they clog up. When they do, you toss ‘em out, because they’re cheap.

There’s no objection I can think of to using a vacuum system, set-up to pull wine from one carboy to another, with a plate and frame in between, other than an incremental increase in complexity while using it—if you’ve got a vacuum pump, more power (power vacuum?) to you.

But I’m not big on membrane filtration. Filter cartridges are best suited to water or air filtering, where they have to deal with fairly low levels of material. The issue is that membrane filters act as a screen-door, rather than a sponge. They usually have a fan-folded cartridge that almost behaves like a two-dimensional object. Anything larger than the holes in the membrane piles up on one side and clear wine passes through.

That is, until the cartridge membrane is completely blocked: because it’s a screen, there’s no depth to soak up lots of goo. After that you have to change it, or clean it before it can filter more wine. This can be done, but handled carelessly, as by backflushing with too much pressure, cartridge integrity can be compromised, allowing material to pass through.

And cartridges are much more expensive than filter pads. There are inexpensive examples, but they won’t be as effective or as strictly rated as more expensive ones. There’s not enough room in this article to discuss the difference between nominal and absolute micron ratings, but when you buy inexpensive cartridges, you’re getting pretty much what you pay for. It’s kind of the ‘toner model’ of computer printers—the money in cartridge filter systems is made in replacement cartridges, not in the actual system itself, so that’s where you pay if you purchase one.

It should be pretty obvious after these points that I’m a fan of filtering, and mostly with positive displacement depth filters. But you would be surprised how often I don’t filter. A lot of the time I’m too lazy. My reds sit for a couple of years before I get around to them, and by that time I’m out of wine and in a hurry, so I just get them in the bottle and pretty immediately into the wine rack. I’m more likely to filter whites, but even then my slack attitude towards a production schedule has me bottling without filtration at least part of the time. But with that, I have to put up with the occasional deposit in the bottle, which is fine for me, but puts a crimp in giving away bottles or sharing with others.

In the end, whether or not you should filter should come down to your own preference, your tolerance for extra processing steps, and the attitudes of those who will be consuming the wine—but don’t worry in any case: filtering won’t hurt your wine in any way, and can help improve the aroma and maintain its appearance over time.

Winemaker Conference 2014

Winemaker New York 2012

A discourse from the source, of course, of course.

I’m heading to Virginia next week for the Winemaker Magazine 2014 conference, June 5-7 at the fabulous Lansdowne Resort in DC’s ‘Wine Country’.  I haven’t missed a conference since the very first, in Monterey back in 2008. I love the Winemaker conference: even though I have to work during the conference I get a chance to meet old friends, find out how their wines are coming along, see how they’re doing and generally catch up with a great bunch of people. In all these years I haven’t met one winemaker I wouldn’t be happy to have as a guest in my house. I think there’s something about taking winemaking seriously that self-selects for thoughtful, happy folks.

teachering

Lecturing to a sharp crowd

This is going to be an especially cool year. I’m teaching a one-day Winemaking Boot Camp. It’s going to be an intensive one-day course with a lot of hands-on trials of advanced equipment, for bottling, transferring, processing and testing. It was a bit of a scramble pulling it all together since my previous corporate sponsor is no longer involved with the conference, but with the help of some friends (more on that soon) and the understanding and largesse of Winemaker Magazine (thanks Brad!) I think I’ve put together a really outstanding program.

top-secret

I’ve got a little file on that . . .

The really cool part is going to be on post-fermentation correction of wine character. This is the secret stuff that in my former life I was obligated to discourage, since it wasn’t part of the program for our products–the companies stances have always been that wines made from kits should be considered complete in themselves. While this is technically true, that still leaves an awful lot of room for tweaking kits, especially now that the toolbox and palette of professional winemakers is now available to retail consumers! It’s going to be a ton of fun!

Well, if I get that case of wine across the border, that is . . . hmm.

You can follow me on Facebook and Twitter for ongoing updates ( #WineMagConf) from on the ground.

Also, as always bookmark this page and check back: good news is always just around the corner!

 

 

Yet Again, Powdered Alcohol.

This is really the non-story that would not die.

You may recall from such blog posts as Powdered Alcohol: Some Dry Observations and Further Observations on Powdered Booze, the faux product Palcohol made some headlines. People who did not understand organic chemistry were delighted by the idea that there was a magic powder that you could sprinkle into anything and make it an instant alcoholic beverage, and the ‘will nobody think of the children’ crowd went absolutely insane at the idea that kids would be snorting it at parties, and next thing you know they’d be addicted to the marijuana . . .

People. I’ll never understand them. Even being one does not seem to help.

However, the chaps over at Vice Magazine (warning: the magazine and the website are relentlessly naughty) have an occasional practical bent. One of their intrepid reporters obtained the necessary ingredients and with a few modifications (he used 192 Proof grain alcohol) he made a batch.

How was it? Two quotes sum it all up:

The powder drunk creeps up on you, and sometime on the walk it kicked in. I went from mostly sober to buzzed to the kind of drunk where you already have a headache and can feel the hangover coming like a distant high-pitched whine. 

The headache was still present—a throbbing pressure at my temples—but the powder drunk was giving me a weird, out-of-body feeling. If you like headaches and gummed-up sinuses and numb, dissociative (sic) drunks, you’re going to go apeshit for powdered booze.

boozefire

Photo courtesy Vice Magazine

There you have it. The author notes that the stuff burned like Napalm, which may in fact be the killer application for the product–burning up in a fire.

 

Powdered Alcohol: Some Dry Observations

Tang. It's out of this world.

The powder? It’s Tang. I’m an astronaut.

In my previous life as the go-to technical guy for retailers and consumers, I’ve spent a lot of my time giving answers to questions both simple and complex, about beer and wine making. I’ve spent even more of my time trying to counter misconceptions, folk tales, and outright jiggery-pokery about beverage alcohol. Most of the time it’s a case of imperfect understanding or incomplete information that I’ve dealt with, but every once in a while something perfectly ridiculous shows up. You’d think that the sheer dumbness of an idea would make it easier to debunk, but that isn’t the case. Because clickbait/aggregator sites like Huffington Post, Gawker, Buzzfeed and the like keep sensationalising and promoting dumb ideas with witless, boundless and breathless enthusiasm, it only takes a small number of people not reading critically to keep the very dumbest ideas in circulation, spreading them out like a slick of dumb across the media waters.

Case in point, ‘Powdered Alcohol’. An enterprising self-promoter named Mark Phillips set up a website to promote Palcohol. After as much checking as I can manage, I haven’t found a strong indicator that this is a hoax. There’s a credible-seeming document showing label approval for a distilled spirit under the name Palcohol, and the Lehrman beverage law firm is leading on the story, which has, somewhat predictably, made the aforementioned sensationalist sites go absolutely insane with joy, crowing from both sides of their mouths about the joy of smuggling ‘vodka powder’ into stadiums and the danger of ‘snorting powdered alcohol’. All in all, it’s a fabulously rich tapestry to hang fantasies of danger and intrigue on.

You can't fool an idiot.

Actually, pretty sure.

Thing is, it’s total crap. Hooey. Malarkey.

Physics prevents alcohol from becoming a powder. Ethanol (CH3-CH2-OH, the good alcohol that we know and love) is a volatile liquid. ‘Volatile’ refers to a substance that vaporises (evaporates) readily, and ethanol evaporates extremely quickly, far faster than water (that’s why rubbing alcohol feels cool on the skin: it evaporates rapidly). At room temperature pure alcohol doesn’t last, and can’t be made into or ‘converted’ to powder. It just goes away.

You can, however, stabilise it by mixing it into an appropriate powder and sealing it in a vapour-proof package. You could use sugar, or more likely a polysaccharide like maltodextrin, which bulks like sugar and has similar hygroscopic qualities, but would not taste abominably sweet in the amount needed.

Now the key to why ‘powdered alcohol’ is a load of bovine feces: the putative TTB label to Palcohol declares 100 ml of powder at 12% ABV, (never mind the mock-up labels on the Palcohol site. They declare much higher levels, but they’re not legal and not approved–fake or simply erroneous, take your pick) and also states that the product is 58% ABW (alcohol by weight). Running the numbers a little, 12% of 100ml = 12ml of 100% pure ethanol. That doesn’t sound like much, but most spirits are sold at 80 Proof, or 40% ABV. Divide 12 ml by 0.40 and you get 30, or roughly one fluid ounce worth of 80 Proof alcohol.

And confirming this bit of math, the packet is marketed as the equivalent to one cocktail. However, the 58% ABW number tells us that the alcohol is much denser than the powder it is suspended in, making the packet fairly bulky–100 ml is almost exactly the same volume as three standard ping-pong balls. This bulk means you’d need 26 of the packets to make up an entire vodka bottle’s worth of cocktails, which is 2.6 litres of powder or 7/10ths of a US gallon.

Assuming you do make this damp maltodextrin substrate-with-alcohol mix, where does that leave you? With a product that’s only 12% ABV, probably costs more, and bulks much larger than simple beverage alcohol, is tough to dissolve in cold liquid and doesn’t taste like anything without the addition of lots of extra additives. Additionally you’d be consuming some form of unidentified powder in vastly higher quantities than the alcohol you’re seeking. Peachy.

So yeah, it might be a thing, but it’s not the thing people want it to be, which is a tiny pinch of magic powder that will turn water into hard liquor like magic.

I lit one up and my house drowned to the ground.

Water matches! Keep away from open flame.

And in this, I blame Warner Brothers. Specifically, I blame their employee, Wile E Coyote, and the Acme corporation that he supported so strongly. The technology that was displayed in the cartoons was surreal and magical–holes you could drop things into and then roll up and take away, paintings that you could enter or alternatively smash your face against, gravity that only acted long after you stepped off the cliff, and so on, all examples of magical thinking, where the observed could not always be understood and actions and events had absurd causal relationships.

About as plausible as powdered alcohol anyway

Just like mom used to make

And really, that’s what human beings want: easy answers that make sense on an emotional level–alcohol is bulky, if it were dried out, you could carry lots with little bulk or weight, hurrah! Only no, reality has to intervene with its fancy college learnin’, laws of physics and general fun-spoiling party-pooper attitude.

I’m not immune to the desire for magic answers. When I was a little kid I was promised moon vacations and a jet car. I’m still waiting for those to be practical, but I know they’ll never come my way. It may make me a cynical curmudgeon now, but on the other hand I save space in my brain for things that are physically possible. Powdered alcohol is a pretty strong marketing hook, but snake oil often is.

This is why we cover our nose and mouth when we sneeze. So our cocktails don't fly out.

I’ll have what she’s having!

Oh, and the danger of ‘snorting’ Palcohol (which Phillips’ coquettishly advises against): if you can snort a volume of sugar/maltodextrin the size of three ping-pong balls to get the stinging equivalent of an ounce of booze up your nose, you’re not human, you’re a vacuum cleaner. Plus, ever get alcohol in your sinuses? It doesn’t stay there: your body won’t let it.

Credit to my friend Peter Cargasacchi for letting me clutter up a Facebook post of his with my immoderate ranting on this topic earlier today. Comments there made me do better math (trust me, as bad as my math is, this is better than it was) and think harder about why we want things like this to be true.

Decanting Non Disputandum Est

 Keeping this all dusted is crazy

Say ‘decanter’ and every wine drinker will know what you mean. They either visualise the never-used cut-crystal wedding gift on Mom’s china hutch (incidentally useless for decanting) or a stuffy British television show where the characters pass around a glass-stoppered vessel of port while harrumphing to each other about the imminent collapse of society. Whatever the image, the conventional wisdom is that decanting wine is accepted for letting young reds breathe and for getting old gunky reds off their sediment.

Funny thing is, there’s a bit of controversy about decanting. One of the most revered and famous winemakers on the planet (Professor Émile Peynaud) thought that decanting was the worst possible thing you could do, and railed against it. Of course, just being a professional French oenologist who shaped many of our modern ideas of winemaking means nothing: I think he was full of hooey. Who are you gonna trust, some French guy, or good old Tim? Okay, perhaps hooey is a strong word (anyone know what ‘hooey is in French? Sottise?) I confess I’m referring specifically to wine from kits, something on which, as far as I’ve been able to discover, Peynaud never commented.

With home winemaking in mind, let’s have a look at decanting, in history and in practise

Decanting in History

Goat-style

In the past there was always some sort of decanter in any wine drinking household. At first this was because wine was typically stored in large vessels, either giant clay jars, amphorae or barrels, and some sort of carrying vessel was needed to get the wine from the cellar to the drinker’s glass. Until the 17th century wine was never stored, aged or transported in glass bottles, although the ancient Romans did use blown glass decanters to serve their wine. You can tell that the early 17th century bottles were intended for serving wine rather than storing it, because they were often shaped like ‘onions’, with a globular body, flattened bottom, and a very short neck–a shape that would never lie on its’ side in a cellar, even if there were a cork to fit it!

In the 16th century the Venetians rediscovered glass-making technology, and their wares spread across (and were widely copied by) the rest of Europe. Because corks were an exciting and newly emerging technology at the time, nobody had thought of using them to seal wine bottles, so blown or ground glass stoppers were included with some bottles to seal them up, at least temporarily. With a custom made glass stopper for each bottle, it was imperative that the two not be separated–stoppers weren’t interchangeable. To that end, stoppers were wired or tied to each bottle. In order to facilitate this, a ring of glass was applied just below the top of the neck where the string was anchored. You can still see the vestiges of this on the neck of almost every modern bottle in the form of a tiny rim around the top.

early-bottles
Examples of early wine bottles. Simple, rounded shapes are easier to make.

In the early 1700’s people rediscovered something important: vintages mattered, and if you could keep some of your best wines well cellared, they improved dramatically. The best way to store the wine turned out to be in a glass bottle, sealed with that exotic new cutting-edge material, ‘cork’. While cellar ageing was great for improving wine, it also lead to another condition–layers of goo in the bottle. Fining, stabilising and filtration technology was not as advanced then as it is now, and many wines would throw sediment, tartrate crystals (‘wine diamonds’) or a haze during storage. The answer, of course, was decanting the wine into a clean serving vessel for the table, leaving the detritus behind.

bottle-tickets
Silver bottle tickets

Another benefit of this was the ability of the host or hostess to decant all of the wines being served at a dinner party well before the guests arrived. They could then be displayed on the sideboard or table, ready for each course in turn. This custom is where the practice of using decanter labels (the Victorian name for these is ‘bottle ticket’) came from. These are small metal nameplates hung around the necks of the bottles–it would be a terrible crisis for the party hostess to confuse the Madeira with the Canary before the toast course!

Modern Decanters

decanting
Modern decanter,designed to expose the largest surface area of the wine. It is widest at the point of a 750 ml fill.

While any clean food-safe vessel of sufficient capacity can be used as a decanter, modern folks are usually intent on either separating their wine from sediment or giving it an airing. To this end, most decanters are made of clear glass and are approximately 30-50% larger in volume than a standard bottle of wine. With an eye to the airing thing, the design usually allows for one bottle of wine (25.6 ounces, 750 ml) to fill them exactly to their widest point. This ensures that the wine is presenting the largest surface possible to the air to allow it to pick up oxygen.

There are also cut-glass decanters, more for serving fancy spirits, and some specialty decanters that hold two bottles of wine (for magnums), some very pretty models shaped like Greek pitchers, with handles and pouring spouts, and some decanters even have perfectly rounded bottoms–so they can’t be put down on the table, and have to keep being passed until they are empty!

Decanting Theory and Practice One: Sediment

mmm, crunchy
Bottle showing tartrate crystals and various pigments, tannins and other compounds settled out as a ‘crust’.

Virtually all modern table wine is intended for more-or-less immediate consumption, and will never have the chance to throw any sort of haze or sediment. Vintage Port, however, almost always throws a ‘crust’ in the bottle. This is because it’s bottled very early in its evolution. As many Vintage Ports need 10 or even 20 years before they’re ready to drink, this means that they will continue to evolve not just in flavour and aroma in the bottle, but also in appearance, dropping a thick layer of tartrate crystals, colour compounds and polymerised phenolics (tannins, mostly). If you just poured the Port directly from the bottle, you’d wind up with a pretty hefty layer of goo in the last three or four glasses. In this case, decanting helps present a wine in its best light.

Decanting to separate the wine from sediment is done very carefully. First, the bottle is brought up from the cellar and stood upright for 24 hours, to allow all the sediment to settle. Next, a scrupulously clean decanter is readied, and the Port is very slowly and gently poured into it. This can take as long as three or four minutes. The goal is to disturb as little sediment as possible. Towards the end of the bottle, the sediment will begin to flow down towards the neck. However, Port bottles have a strong drop-shoulder, and by keeping watch, you can stop pouring as soon as the sediment begins to flow towards the neck.

Easy does it, big guy
Traditional decanting process in Portugal. In this case the top of the bottle was actually cut off to prevent any residue from the cork touching the wine.

There are some gadgets that are designed to help with the process. The traditional candle held behind the neck of the bottle to help illuminate the flow of sediment has been replaced mostly by strong flashlights, but decanting cradles are still around. This gadget, looking like a cross between a dismembered music-box and a hand-driven apple-corer uses a mechanism to tilt the bottle with glacial slowness, to prevent any sudden tipping that could disturb the sediment. They’re not cheap, and most of the ones around are antiques.

Should you decant your Port before serving? If you’re the kind of person who collects vintage Port, you already have your own opinion on that. If you’re like most of us, making and enjoying Ruby and Tawny-style Ports from kits or home fruit, it’s probably not going to be necessary–but it does look fancy, and won’t hurt a strongly-flavoured, high-alcohol Port in the least.

Decanting Theory and Practice Two: Breathing

The most wide-spread reason for decanting is aeration, giving the wine a chance to soak up some oxygen, to ‘open up’ and express its aromas. On the surface, this sounds pretty good: the wine has been cooped up in the bottle, so letting it out to stretch its legs would make sense, right?

Well, according to some oenologists, wrong. According to these experts, post-fermentation oxygen exposure is virtually always detrimental, and the greater the exposure the more damage it does, driving off delicate aromatics and numbing the wines delicate bouquet. Only heavily sedimented wines should be decanted, they say, and then only at the very last minute before they’re served.

old wine or new coffee?
Old wine, trending to brickish-coffee colour as it has aged.

Indeed, for very old wines this is true. I was at a wine tasting in the early 90’s where a very rare bottle of Argentinean Cabernet Sauvignon from the 1950’s was poured. It was amazing at first, a rare and delicate wine with cedar, hints of blackcurrant, dusty cigar box, even rose petals lurking around. As I sniffed and swirled it over the course of four or five minutes the aromas got lighter and thinner until suddenly poof! It smelled of nothing except lightly vinegared water. It was almost like seeing a vampire getting trapped in the sunlight; it decayed away to nothing so rapidly. Decanting this wine would have doomed it to losing its character before the drinkers ever saw it.

Keep in mind, however, that most oenologists don’t make wine at home (hey, it’s their loss–I’m here when they want to try). If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the last 15 years of working in the consumer wine industry, it’s that people tend to drink their kit wines  before they’re actually ready. Not that this is such a terrible thing–some wines taste just fine while they’re fresh and snappy with youth, and others, like the Mist-type fruit and wine beverages are meant to be drunk the day of bottling. However, the bigger, oak-aged whites and many of the reds really benefit from at least a year of age in the bottle, resting quietly and gaining strength for their unveiling. For these underage wines a little airing not only doesn’t detract from them, it also accomplishes the following:

  • Separates it from any sediment (definitely an ‘oops’ in young wine, but if you decant it, no one will ever know!)
  • If the wine has a small amount of trapped carbon dioxide (CO2) and is slightly ‘fizzy’, decanting can drive this off, making the wine smoother. Dissolved CO2 in solution forms carbonic acid, giving the wine a sharp ‘bite’. This is an issue that afflicts beginning winemakers quite frequently.
  • If the wine has an appreciable aroma of sulphite, decanting can oxidise it and drive it off. Most kit wines have a carefully measured amount included, but if you think you can detect it, decanting will disperse the ‘burnt match’ character.
  • Wines that are heavily oaked will lose some of the ‘Chateau Plywood’ character and show more of their fruit quality.
  • Highly tannic red wines will lose some of their harsher bite, and present a fruitier, more approachable flavour and aroma.

Indeed, with very young home-made wines the improvement made by decanting the young ones can be quite dramatic. They go from closed, low aroma wines with a character that some people interpret as ‘that taste’ to fully open, approachable wines with a pleasant aroma, and only the characters associated with commercial wine.

Decanting Theory and Practice Three: The Going Gets Weird

If you’re a very serious computer geek, the name Nathan Myhrvold will be familiar. As the former chief technology officer of Microsoft, he was charged with applying his brains strenuously to important science-y stuff. In his retirement he  didn’t leave his big brain behind. In addition to spearheading private initiatives on clean nuclear energy and geo-engineering, he  wrote the book Modernist Cuisine, a bazillion page tome on applying science to food preparation. He caused quite a stir back in 2011 when he wrote a short article for Bloomberg Businessweek. In it he described a radical idea for decanting:

Wine lovers have known for centuries that decanting wine before serving it often improves its flavor. Whatever the dominant process, the traditional decanter is a rather pathetic tool to accomplish it. A few years ago, I found I could get much better results by using an ordinary kitchen blender. I just pour the wine in, frappé away at the highest power setting for 30 to 60 seconds, and then allow the froth to subside (which happens quickly) before serving. I call it “hyperdecanting.”

hyperdecant-1

Wheee!
Images from Myhrvold’s book, Modernist Cuisine

Your average winegeek will feel faint looking at that. I had my own gadzooks moment on reading about it, but I have since tried it many times. While Myhrvold suggests double-blind triangle tasting to confirm (where you taste three wines, two the same, one different, several times, served by someone who doesn’t know which wine is which, to eliminate bias) it’s such a simple thing to detect that I only bothered the first time.

It works, very well indeed.

Does this mean you should be putting your vintage Bordeaux in the Vita-Mix, as Myhrvold suggests? Not necessarily, as it’s actually very pleasant to allow a wine to open up slowly to enjoy its progression, it’s opening and changing over the minutes or hours. But if you’ve got a very young wine that’s stubbornly clinging to a closed and tenacious nature, and you own a blender . . . I guarantee you’ll notice an immediate change.

Addenda

My friend Larry pointed out that I’d mentioned a decanting doohickey ‘looking like a cross between a dismembered music-box and a hand-driven apple-corer’. I really should have included a picture to go with that imagery, and courtesy of another chum (thanks Glenn) here’s a shot:

Whirl, whirl, twist and twirl

Gattorna Wine Bottle Decanter

Any questions about it–is it useful, is it relevant, is it necessary–are irrelevant. I need one.