Let's have a concentration lapse

05 October, 2007

Is the recent kerfuffle about food additives relevant to the wine industry? At first sight, the choice facing the European Food Safety Authority - whether to ban certain artificial colourings and a widely-used preservative that appear to cause hyperactivity in children - has little or nothing to do with fermented grapes. Children don't drink wine - at least not legally - and none of the additives used in its production is under suspicion.

And yet there is a sense in which food additives should give us pause for thought. Writing in The Guardian, the campaigning journalist Felicity Lawrence argued that "the additives in question are used to make junk palatable", even if they don't actively endanger the health of consumers. Is there an equivalent in wine? Indeed there is. It's called grape concentrate.

Grape concentrate is increasingly used to sweeten wines before bottling. I haven't had them all analysed, but my palate tells me

the majority of the most popular New World

brands, especially from Australia and the

States, are effectively off-dry. There are exceptions - Jacob's Creek and Yalumba make drier styles than their commercial rivals - but sweetness levels of 5g per litre or more are commonplace these days. Old World wines are generally drier, but my impression is that mass market wines from France, Spain and Italy are getting sweeter too.

Some producers (and retailers) argue that this is merely a response to popular demand. There is more than an element of truth to this. When questioned, consumers may say they like dry wines, but they invariably prefer something with some residual sugar. Things are not as extreme here as they are in the

States, but there's no denying that the mass market likes the taste, if not necessarily the idea, of off-dry wines. The same is true of breakfast cereal, soups and even bread, all of which are getting sweeter.

I don't have a problem with sweetness in wine per se. What bothers me is that grape concentrate is often used as a way of making up for bad viticulture. Dilute, over-cropped wines (frequently showing harsh, angular tannins if they're red) are given body and mouth-feel by the addition of grape concentrate. For wines that lack personality, balance and concentration, sweetness has become a winemaking panacea.

I'm not sure who started this trend, but I suspect it was Gallo, with its Hearty Burgundy (known as Hardly Burgundy in the States). More recently, Rosemount enjoyed enormous success in the 1990s with sweetish wines. After that, almost every major company has followed suit. And before we Europeans blame Americans and Australians for this stylistic shift, we should remember that sweetness (known as "dosage") is regularly and legally used in Champagne to improve some truly awful, lamentably dilute wines. As a general rule, the sweeter the brut, the more the Champagne house has to hide.

Of course there's an economic dimension to all this. Faced with the demands of a dwindling number of increasingly powerful retailers (and not just in the UK) producers have to find ways of stretching their wines to hit the required price points. If they lowered yields, they would make more concentrated wines. But they'd also shave something off their patina-thin bottom line. Grape concentrate allows wineries to over produce then claw back some richness and texture before bottling. To repeat Felicity Lawrence's phrase, it is a way of "making junk palatable".

If some consumers like these wines, you ask, who are we to tell them otherwise? It's a fair point. But I'd still like to see off-dry wines labelled as such. "Contains grape concentrate" or " residual sugar level: 6g/l" would be a more honest way of presenting them. Would wine drinkers respond to them in the same way if they knew they had been sweetened with concentrate? I suspect they might not. Being honest about the practice would help to educate consumers. It might also help to reverse a trend that is lazy, cynical and, in my view at least, unethical.

Oz shortage has interesting implications

The figures are only an estimate, but if you believe Brian Croser, winemaker at Tapanappa and one of Australia's leading industry figures, the 2008 vintage Down Under could be even shorter than this year's reduced crop. From 2004 to 2006, Australia regularly produced around 2 million tonnes of grapes. In 2007, the figure dropped to 1.4 million. And next year, the predictions are somewhere between 0.8 million and 1.3 million, leaving the Aussies with a serious shortfall because of water shortages in the Riverland and the knock-on effect of frosts in the 2006-2007 growing season.

Croser thinks

Australia won't be able to meet the demand , especially at the lower end of the market, and may have to look offshore for wine. The big companies may be forced to source wine from Chile, South Africa and Argentina to fill their bag-in-box requirements. My hunch is

the shortage will also push up the prices of better wines, leaving a potential gap in the market for Australia's competitors

- 2008 is set to be an interesting year ...

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