Sour grapes over lab wine

The rise of monster vino

There’s a new trend fast emerging in the world of wine and if you drink the stuff on a regular basis it’s one you ought to know about. It goes by many names and all kinds of descriptions but I like to simply call it Frankenstein-wine. So what’s all the fuss? Let me explain….

The world’s largest wine companies those that produce all the popular brand names you see in case-cut displays at your favourite chain liquor store have been noting a growing consumer preference for “bigger richer and softer” wines. They’re also aware that many of the world’s most successful wines tend to be full-bodied — or at least weighing in on the heavy side. Coincidentally it’s the same style that renowned wine critic Robert Parker tends to favour in his wildly popular and influential publication The Wine Advocate .

But what is a mega corporation to do? Producing high-quality wines packed with all the fruit and tannin Parker so enjoys takes a lot of time work and most importantly money. Unless of course you forgo pesky details like vineyard husbandry and opt instead for a little creative chemistry.

This trend of taking ordinary fruit and giving it all of its flavour and charm in the laboratory is big business. Just as synthetic as the wines are the catchy albeit meaningless stories concocted by marketers to go along with them. Hey if people want to drink wines with unique stories and an interesting history why not just make some up?

The latest round of labels to hit the shelves have names like Jam Jar Layer Cake Menage and Apothic. The Apothic website gives you the feeling you are on to something from a small artisan winery citing things like “The most distinctive grapes from California’s renowned vineyards.” You will note that nowhere on the page does it say that this wine is made by Gallo the world’s biggest producer of wine.

I know what you’re thinking — that I’m one of those wine snobs that can’t appreciate good value wines. On the contrary I love a good buy — I spend a lot of my time looking for them. What gets me so upset about wines like these is the deception. You have the impression of a small working winery when in reality it’s just big business. It’s no different than Anheuser-Busch coming out with a new “microbrew.”

Many of these mystery brands have another thing in common that you may not be aware of: sugar — and lots of it. But that’s just one ingredient in their long list of additives. They use every trick in the book to make ordinary wines taste like there’s something special going on. High-fructose corn syrup is typical of many — the additional sweetness helps hide unripe tannin and adds additional body. Colouring agents like the infamous “mega purple” make pale and insipid wines come to life with deep brooding colour and newfound weight. Engineered yeasts make for a perfectly predictable fermentation and a bevy of artificial aromas. Concentrates are there to add flavours that the grapes never had. Finally a good dollop of oak chips bring to life that all-important vanilla flavour normally derived from expensive oak barrels but which these wines never passed through.

To be honest many people don’t care. “So what if they used a few tricks to make their wine taste better? I like it and it’s cheap” they reason. Fair enough. But when wine lowers itself to this standard it starts to become more of a “grape flavoured beverage” rather than a “wine.” And I’m not sure that’s a good road to go down. One of the reasons people drink wine is because of amazing ability of grapes to taste like so many things without the addition of the flavouring agents present in most other drinks. Sadly wine does not have to disclose these additives on the label (not yet anyway) so it’s not always easy to know especially when the marketing is so slick.

So if you love wine real wine you may have to do a little research to make sure what you’re tasting in your glass came from grapes — and not a lab.