When I started in this business, I heard a joke. Three winemakers were walking on a rural road and came to a crossroads. One of them said they should go left. Another said, right. The third winemaker pointed out that road went straight. It was decided that they would each follow their proverbial path and return to the crossroads to see who was right. When the winemakers returned to the crossroads, each was convinced that their path was the intended one. The winemakers each attempted to prove their logic. At this point in the yarn, the joker paused. After a long silence, the audience asked for the punch line. The joker said, They’re still there.

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For winemakers and consumers, no one topic is more debated than wine additives. For the purists, to ‘adjust’ any wine is a transgression. For the large winery, treating wine to produce ‘branded’ results is a matter of course.

First thing to remember: There is no science to making wine. Of course, there is Science, but there is no one way that wine is made. Every winemaker and wine drinker can tell you what they like; and no matter how convincing they are no one is right 100% of the time.

Wine is an organic material trapped in a state of carbonic degradation. The way in which a wine is perceived on the palate depends a great deal on how the winemaker has directed and paced that degradation. All ideologies aside, for every potential problem that a wine might suffer there are several ways in which it can be adjusted toward a more focused future.

The winemaker should be able to identify when a wine is in need of special attention. Likewise the winemaker should be able to identify solutions to a problem. Potential problems include oxidation, volatile acidity, an unbalanced pH, unstable proteins, bacteria, excessive alcohol, and residual sugar – just to name a few. Frequent tasting of the wine during and after fermentation can greatly decrease the need for large-scale attacks – meant to redirect the wine – later on. Large wineries have money and thousands of gallons of wine (i.e. options) with which to experiment. Micro-wineries have a lot less wine on hand.

No matter the size of the project, the decision to focus on any one treatment for any potential problem should be done with prudence. Empirical method should be employed at all stages of any experiment. In the end, many options can be the solution to a single problem.

Small-scale bench trials that focus on solutions to a problem can be arranged very easily. (See the how-to guidelines below.) When each fraction of the wine is treated and settled, the wine should be tasted. Does the problem still exist? Does one treatment benefit the wine’s ideal profile more than the others?

If any treatment in the trial helps to guide the wine in a desired way, the total quantity of wine can be adjusted using the trial as a reference. If none of the treatments work, maybe there is another problem. Sending a small sample to a lab can answer a lot of questions. For those who wish to be empirical and organic, several natural solutions used in series can mitigate almost any known major problem. Frequent tasting of the wine is very important. Each barrel of wine should be tasted at least once a month.
Perhaps the best advice anyone can adhere to, follow your palate. Being able to read wine comes with experience and exposure to wine and its problems.

Getting back to the point of the joke about the winemakers at the crossroads, sometimes you have to get lost to find the way. What’s important is the wine inside the bottle – finding pleasure rather than promoting ideology.

A few typical additives and reasons for their use in wine include:

Sulfur – For centuries, this naturally occurring element has been used to protect wine from degrading as it ages in barrel and bottle. Sulfur is both an anti-oxidant and an anti-microbial additive that, in very small doses, acts as an anti-aging serum. Sulfur can also trigger asthma in those who are sensitive to it.

Tartaric Acid – The lion’s share of the acid in grapes; used to adjust a wine’s pH, typically before or during fermentation.

Citric Acid – Used in treating wines with higher-than-moderate levels of iron; is less stable than Tartaric Acid for pH adjustments.

Sorbic Acid – Inhibits yeast activity. Can be used prior to bottling of unfiltered wines when alcohols are above 12% abv.

Lysozyme – An enzyme commercially produced from egg whites; inhibits or delays malo-lactic fermentation; or it can be added after secondary fermentation to reduce the need for sulfuring an unfiltered wine prior to bottling.

Egg Whites – For red wines made from black grapes with thick skins, egg whites stirred into the wine can serve to soften the bite of the tannins.

Bentonite – A clay formed from volcanic ash that when added to wine binds with proteins and prevents against cloudiness; primarily used in white wines.

Organizing a bench trial –

  • First, identify the potential problem with the wine. Can the problem be mitigated simply, or is there a more serious root cause?
  • Research solutions to the problem and order supplies that might help to remedy the situation.
  • Estimate the quantity of problem wine on hand. 
  • Separate one percent of that quantity for each experiment you want to try. (1000 Gallons x 1% = 10 Gallons)
  • Prepare various dosages of suggested fining agents/solutions accordingly and add to each experimental vessel.
  • Dose each small quantity of wine with each treatment. Stir vigorously and let the settlings fall to the bottom of the container – this can take hours or weeks; seek specific direction from your research or product literature.
  • Remove sample of cleared/adjusted wine and taste; sometimes, scientific examinations are required for accurate results.

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