On Wine: Are additives always a bad thing?

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It’s the secret wine makers almost universally decline to admit: More additives are used in wine around the world today than ever before.

Which accounts for the fact that wine today is better than it has ever been.

The real problem is that no wine maker ever wants to admit to the use of additives, no matter how legal the practice, how beneficial, how benign or economical.

I got to thinking about this the other day when a wine maker and friend, in an off-the-record aside, admitted that he used gum arabic in some of his least expensive wines, which by coincidence I had praised for their remarkable value.

These were not great wines. Each sold for well under $7 a bottle. Twenty years ago similar wines would have been all but undrinkable.

Today they serve a useful purpose: they provide good values for those on a budget.

Gum arabic, sometimes called guar gum, is a byproduct of Acacia trees and helps to deal with unpleasant tannins in otherwise rough and rugged red wines. It is also widely used in the production of many foods.

I have spoken with literally thousands of wine makers in the nearly four decades I have written about wine, and rarely has anyone denied to my face the use of a legal additive. But their comments always start with, “Off the record….”

I know of only one additive that wine makers are so proud of they brag about it: French oak barrels. They are widely used to make the best cabernet sauvignons and thus the priciest.

Wine makers around the globe usually have a “little black box” that contains all sorts of things they add to a wine to improve it. In general, such additives benefit the consumer by giving the wine something the grapes never had in them. Or it deals with a problem that arises during production.

This is far more evident with inexpensive pinot noir than any other grape. It’s nearly impossible to make pinot taste like the grape when using mediocre fruit.

It’s one reason why truly great pinot noir costs a lot of money. Such greatness comes only from great grapes and great barrels, and such wines generally are made in only tiny amounts.

In past years I have written about the broad use of an additive called Mega Purple in the production of some expensive red wines. It did not ”improve” such wines. It just made them darker and altered their aromas.

I consider such use to be terrible. Mega Purple is best used with cheaper wines. When used properly to elevate mediocre grapes into a palatable inexpensive wine, the additive is most appropriate.

A wine maker friend confided the other day that wine at all quality levels was more manipulated today than it has ever been, and that at its lower price levels, wine is better than ever.

He said wine makers who use additives shouldn’t be ashamed or deny the fact when asked. In fact, they should be proud that they made proper use of something that simply makes the wine better for almost every consumer.

Gum arabic may actually leave a wine with a bit more sweetness than the grapes on their own, but if the alternative wasn’t very attractive, doesn’t the consumer benefit? Doesn’t the winery sell more of it?

Who loses in this scenario?

The only victim here, as I see it, is the truth. By failing to admit that the only way a $5 wine tastes more like a $15 wine is the intelligent use of additives, wineries are implying that such use is illegal and any sotto voce discussion of it must be an admission of a misdeed.

Either that, or the winery must simply lie, “Oh, no, we never use additives.”

Sounds to me like a South Florida land salesman.

“Swamp? Naw, it’s as dry as the moon.”

Wine of the Week: 2014 Ponzi Tavola Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley ($25): Ponzi vineyards in Oregon has been making stellar Pinot Noir in the Dundee Hills for decades, and this young pinot has a lighter, elegant fragrance of dried cherries, herbal tea and spices. And the aroma shows evidence of partial aging in French oak barrels. The entry is medium and perfectly structured to go with elegant foods. The alcohol is only 13.7%. It is one of the best pinot noir values around, screw-capped for freshness.

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