Lifestyle / Food And Drink

Michael Fridjohn
2 minute read
7 Aug 2013
2:14 pm

Juicy Wine

Michael Fridjohn

The average wine drinker believes in a set of conventions (many never really fully verbalised) about the art and craft of wine.

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These include the idea that wine making is essentially a natural process. The list of acceptable manipulations includes the use of commercial yeast, sulphur dioxide (grudgingly, and as an essential antiseptic) and oak barrels (especially for red wines). Filtration – to the extent that anyone even thinks about it – is implicitly disapproved of: selling a wine with the words “unfiltered” somewhere on the label is meant to convey a message of authenticity.

Since wine is regarded as an agricultural rather than an industrial product, the artisanal approach occupies the high ground. The fact that the law allows any number of interventionist strategies is not something that producers go out of their way to communicate. For example, the mention of bentonite as a fining agent does not appear on any back label I have ever seen. It would suggest that the natural process had been subverted by a chemical addition.

I’ve just spent a few days tasting an extraordinary number of low-priced, high volume table wines. Many were surprisingly good, given the quantities in which they are produced, and the prices at which they sell in supermarkets. They were juicy, easy-to-drink, showy, plush – and available for sale for under R30 per bottle.

Most convey the impression of fully ripened fruit, yet are quite low in alcohol. That alone is something of a near miraculous achievement. Conspiracy theorists might suggest that such perfect fruit-driven aromas could only be achieved by the use of illicit flavourant. However, there are other tricks – such as fully ripening the fruit so those primary black-currant, cherry and strawberry notes evolve naturally.

The problem is then to reduce the otherwise frighteningly high alcohols (prohibited in wine destined for sale in supermarkets). Here, the simple – though illicit – solution is the addition of a little water – a strategy which has the further advantage of augmenting the volume available for sale (sometimes by as much as 15%) for no more than the price of H2O.

There are other – more legal – tricks that achieve very similar results. Blending a little white wine to very tannic reds will soften the rustic textures. Or else you might use chemical fining agents and industrial filtration to polish them away. Often winemakers simply add enough concentrate (fructose, in other words) to conceal the rough edges under a layer of almost imperceptible sugar.

It seems clear that if you want something decent at R30 per bottle, a more worldly – less regulation-bound – approach may be a useful starting point.

– Michael Fridjohn is one of South Africa’s most highly regarded international wine judges and wine writers. Visit his website