Jeannie Cho Lee
I came across a question from food and drink writer Fiona Beckett that intrigued me: 'Why are some red wines so soft and soupy?' This was the same question I asked myself while reviewing more than 200 modestly priced (HK$250 or below) wines recently. The vast majority of the wines were broad on the palate with simple flavours, sometimes a bit syrupy with high alcohol and barely detectable acidity.
There is no question that over the past nearly three decades wines across the price spectrum have improved tremendously. I can't remember the last time Bordeaux produced a wretched vintage or when Burgundy was so dreadful that we would pass up the chance to buy Domaine Armand Rousseau or Domaine de la Romanee-Conti. Since 1982, the stars, or more accurately the sun, have shone down on fine wine and there has yet to be a single disastrous vintage since then. At the same time, huge improvements and understanding in viticultural methods and winemaking techniques have contributed to consistency and quality around the world.
Wines in the modestly priced bracket improved dramatically thanks to temperature control, reliable packaged yeasts, vigilant hygiene and better understanding of the winemaking process. However, so many wines are often bland, uninspiring and without personality. Beckett calls these 'the wine world's equivalent of a cupcake'. I would go even further and call them vanilla-flavoured cupcakes straight from the box.
Two reasons for these increasingly reliable but dull styles are the commercialisation and expansion of the wine world. Many of the largest wine companies source fruit from warmer regions within their respective countries where the growing season is often too hot, but dependable. Quantity is plentiful, obvious fruit flavours are easily extracted and sugar ripeness is never a problem. This is the perfect combination for high-volume branded wines to distribute around the world. Companies such as Casella, which makes Yellow Tail, or Bronco Wine and its 'Two Buck Chuck' source fruit from the warm regions of southeastern Australia and California, respectively.
The responses that Beckett's question generated were equally fascinating. Many winemakers chimed in with surprising responses. Jason Lett of Eyrie Vineyards in Oregon offers a formula on how to make 'plush, succulent, easy drinking reds': he suggests growing the grape variety of choice in a region warmer than where it naturally evolved so that there are minimal challenges to its growth. The low acidity in grapes grown in warmer regions is easily countered by tartaric acid addition in the winery. High temperatures in the vineyard and winery increase microbial activities, so spraying regularly with fungicide and using lots of sulphur dioxide are likely to be common.
In the winery, the bag of tricks has expanded immensely. Popular items include tannins for smoothness, enzymes for flavour extraction and special yeasts for high alcohol wines. Everything comes in a bag and is easy to measure and use, just like a cupcake packet. Leaving a bit of unfermented sugar behind would be common, according to Lett, since this masks harshness. To add oak flavour, inexpensive oak chips are the best choice; these add even more sweetness and increase vanillins and wood-sugar content, making the palate supple.
After fermentation, red wines undergo a malolactic fermentation where harsh malic acid is converted into softer lactic acid. This can be instigated by adding packaged lactic acid bacteria to further round out the wine and add a creamy middle. Finally, the wines can be fined to soften harsh tannins. Sterile filtering or the addition of chemicals kill all bacteria and yeast. This process that Lett describes to make soft, soupy reds doesn't even include many of the hi-tech machines available in major winemaking regions around the world.
At the other end of the spectrum, there is a movement towards more artisanal winemaking. Producers are shunning technology and going back to the vineyard for long-term improvements. To ensure greater site expression, some are experimenting with different density planting, looking at expensive organic or biodynamic farming methods, replacing and uprooting to plant better quality vines and changing the trellis system so that the fruit has suitable leaf coverage. The impact on the final wine takes a decade or more. New wineries use gravity rather than pumps to move wine and the new micro-vats reflect the nuances of the vineyard.
For those at the top end, the critical question is whether the expense and investment converts into a sufficiently higher quality and distinctiveness. At the lower end, wines are competing on price point in their respective categories and making soft, soupy, cupcake wines may be the safest bet - reliability, consistency and affordability are what the consumer expects. If I am paying less than HK$200 for a bottle of red, I would rather have soft and soupy than tannic, bitter, disjointed and faulty, which were common among inexpensive wines made in the 1960s and '70s.