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Designer wine from the refinery

Vintage time is due soon. And high-tech doesn't except even the classy drink. Unfortunately, the tricks how to turn cheap fusel into a delicacy are astonishing.

Also the contents of white wines get analysed in the laboratories
Picture by T. Micke

Sawdust is swirling in the red sauce and at first sight the content of the big steel tank looks as if something went very wrong. But if the vine-dresser has finished his Cabernet Sauvignon, it will not only taste delicately slightly like black current, paprika and blackberries, it will also have the mild flavour of vanilla, coconut and plum. Through naturally generated means you can create this flavour only by storage in oak barrels. A 200 years old French oak tree is also the origin of sawdust or shavings, as in special winemaker language the small wooden objects are called, that can be ordered from the internet. By adding this magical sawdust powder, Chilean wine-producers skip one or two years of expensive storage in wooden barrels and are still able to add the demanded flavour within one or two weeks. Naturally these wines can be sold cheaper and the leached shavings can be used as fertiliser later on.

So-called shavings and oak slices help producing cheap Barrique-wine
Picture by T. Micke

In Austria this procedure is subject to authorisation, but permitted nevertheless. But red wines, meliorated with such shavings, may not be called "Barrique-wine", although you can hardly taste a difference.

Dr. Reinhard Eder from the academy of viniculture and promiculture in Klosterneuburg also sees the positive aspects of this rather new and unromantic method: "Above all this procedure is better for environment. You need one huge oak tree for the traditional barrel storage of about 500 litres of wine. But with the sawdust of the same oak, you can treat 10.000 to 50.000 litres of wine, because of the bigger surface the material has. Also the transport to winerys around the world saves space. Still wine that was ripened in barrels is tastier, because it can ,breathe' for many months in the wood."

With the so-called spinning cone column the wine can be separated from aroma and alcohol
Picture by Bundeslehranstalt für Weinbau Klosterneuburg

Almost brutal are the wine making methods in many big, well-known wine factories in California, Australia and South Africa nowadays: The so called "spinning cone column" is a high-grade steel monster worth one or two million Euro. It is used to volatilise and centrifuge wine to its separate contents like crude oil in refineries. First, the aroma with its banana-like esters, the fruity terpenes and the pyrazines which smell like bread crust, are separated. As second step the alcohol itself is unhinged. What remains is a stale, lukewarm something, which is carefully and gradually remixed with the separated substances until you have an end product that almost explodes with flavour – carefully timed to have less than 14 % alcohol so as not to reach the next higher tax class and of course there is nothing left of the original slightly burnt or bitter taste. "Refined designer-wine" in the true meaning of the word, fabricated with a procedure which is said to have been copied from the uranium isotope columns used to build hydrogen bombs...

Although this procedure is (still) prohibited in Europe (there is only one test machine in the German experimental station in Geisenheim), the romantic idea of the winemaker who needs no tricks to get the delicacy from the vine to the glass is only an illusion also in Europe: reverse osmosis, vacuum vaporisation, cryo concentration and crossflow-filtration are familiar terms to modern wine makers.

Already thousands of years ago wine-growers knew that cloudy red wines could be clarified with egg white. For this process they used egg white, milk and also a powder made from fish bladders. All three react with the tanning agents in the wine and then sediment at the base of the barrel. Nowadays mostly skimmed milk powder or gelatine is used.

Well known tricks of wine producers: reverse osmosis, cryonic concentration, vacuum vaporisation and crossflow-filtration
Picture by T. Micke

Austria's research department for wine from the academy in Klosterneuburg is doing pioneer work in this field: Animal protein might be substituted with products from sunflowers or clover in future. The scientists also very successfully work against wine cheaters. Dr. Eder: "Just imagine a Styrian winemaker would buy cheap red wine in North Burgenland and sell it under his label as a rare Styrian red to a four times higher price. Such trickery was hard to prove until recently. But nowadays, thanks to the Austrian Research Centres in Seibersdorf, we are able to differentiate a Zweigelt from mid Burgenland from one of North Burgenland by analysing the hydrogen and carbon atoms contained in the wine. They have a very typical fingerprint."

Concerning this wine fingerprint also the genetical department from Eder's colleague Dr. Ferdinand Regner is doing brilliant research: "To define the exact variety up to quite recently we had to analyse grapes, leaves and seeds from the vine. Nowadays, with DNS-analyses we are not only able to differentiate the worldwide known 20.000 vine types with only one cell test. For the first time we can also retrace the genealogical tree. And there the researches came across a big surprise: Austria's typical wine types like Veltliner, Traminer and Blaufränkischer all have their roots in one of three big vine families. The so-called Heunisch. It is lso the origin of the Chardonnay for example. But in reality the Heunisch vine is not native in Europe at all, it's rather very exotic. The Huns brought it to us on their raids from Asia's steppe."

Wine experts know which chromosome is responsible for which flavor
Picture by T. Micke

Once you know the exact genotype of a vine, you can experiment with it. Dr. Regner: "Vines have 19 chromosomes which are analysed for their characteristics here in the laboratory in Lower Austrias Langenzersdorf. For example: Now we know that the genes from chromosome 9 are responsible for the nutmeg flavor." These are useful informations for the breeding of flavour improved or more resistant vine types. In the United States, Israel and Australia geneticists are already experimenting with these characteristics in their labs.

So it seems to be only a matter of time until the first vines with artificial anti-mould or chocolate-flavor-gene grow somewhere in the world. And if the wine made from these grapes should not taste well, then there ist still the spinning cone column to help out...

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© A report by Tobias Micke (29-08-04) – Contact