Tuesday, July 17, 2012

This is Scoring Wine

The 100-point system of rating wine continues its relentless march towards global domination. Until recently, the only place you would see a wine with a score out of 100 was in a written wine review. Now the 100-point system is also set to replace the 20-point system traditionally used in Australian wine competitions.

Earlier this year the Sydney Royal Wine Show trialed the new method of judging in some of its classes; wines at the just-completed Royal Queensland Show were scored out of 100 rather than 20; and the Canberra International Riesling Challenge in October will also be moving to this new system.

It’s not just an Australian phenomenon, this obsession with big scores. Even that bastion of old-school wine appreciation, Decanter magazine in the UK, has this month ditched its old five star rating system in favour of points out of 100.

Sigh. Regular readers know that I am no fan of scoring wine. It makes as much sense to me as scoring a sunset. Yes, some sunsets are more beautiful than others. But two or three points more beautiful? Reducing such a subjective, multi-faceted sensory experience to such a precise number seems to be, well, missing the point.

But I am obviously in a dwindling minority. Doling out the points is clearly here to stay. So, adopting the can’t-beat-‘em-join-‘em principle, from now on I will start scoring wine too. And I’m very excited about the new rating method I’ve devised: where most blokes only go up to 100, my scoring goes up to 110.

In a nod to nostalgia, I’m going to allocate a maximum of 20 points for quality - complexity and persistence of flavour, all the usual jazz. But I’m also going to award 10 possible points for funkiness: whereas most judges would give lower scores for a touch of volatile acidity or cloudiness or a whisper of brettanomyces (a ‘spoilage’ yeast), for example, I’ve realised that I actually like finding these agricultural characters in wine: I think they can make it more interesting and more delicious with food. So actually, no, bugger it: let’s make that 20 possible funky points. Boo-yah!

I’ll give up to 10 points for packaging. After all, who doesn’t love a cool label, a heavy imported bottle and a wax capsule? Another 10 possible points for obligatory greenness (sustainable, organic, carbon neutral - all the touchy-feely stuff). And 20 points for food-friendliness because it’s so important: I’m going to ask winemakers to recommend a specific dish for each wine sample they send me, which I will then have the kitchen staff in my tasting facility cook up and serve alongside the tasting glass. Ten bonus points will be awarded for any wines fermented in clay amphorae.

I’m also going to give up to ten points for value: the better the QPR (that’s “quality-to-price-ratio”, apparently: it comes with its own logarithm), the higher the score (I’ll be deducting points for wines that are obviously overpriced, opportunistic and ostentatious). And finally, I’m leaving another ten points to play with just depending on how I feel on the day.


A version of this article first appeared in the Weekend Australian A Plus on 21 July 2012

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Drinking to remember - a journey into Australian wine

Skillogalee Vineyard, 1990

It is 1990. I am 22 years old. I’m standing in a small cellar door in the Clare Valley. It’s the first cellar door I have ever visited. And the glass of wine in my hand has just changed my life.

I have never tasted wine like this. It’s so much darker, more voluptuous, richer in flavour than any red I’ve tried before. If this is how good wine can be, I think, I need to try more.

I was an art student from the UK, with an art student's thirst - and an art student’s budget - on a family holiday in Adelaide. A friend had driven us out to Clare and the Barossa to show us his favourite wineries. We went to Skillogalee, Mitchell Wines and Sevenhill, then over to St Hallett, Peter Lehmann and Rockford. For this wine newbie, used to knocking back cheap plonk, it felt like someone had opened a door to another, far more delicious and rewarding world and invited me in.

Fast forward to 2012. Now I’m earning a living writing about wine. And I point to that day in 1990, and the cellar doors we visited, as the start of the journey that got me here.

So, two decades on, I decided to revisit those six cellar doors. I have been back to each of them at various times in the intervening years, of course, for work: vertical tastings, dinners, festivals. But this time I went to talk. To ask the winemakers about what’s changed since 1990 - and what hasn’t. About why and how each of them is not only still there but, it appears, more successful than ever.

I had an appointment, though, before I left for South Australia. I had to talk with Richard Piper, the family friend who unwittingly launched a wine-writing career by leading me through the cellar-door looking glass all those years ago.

Richard Piper
It's all Richard's fault ...

Like the good Yorkshireman he is, Richard has cooked up some black pudding to have with our lunchtime beer. He still drinks a lot of wine, but beer has become his passion. So I’ve brought some Moo Brew Imperial Stout to lubricate the conversation. And now we’re drinking to remember that fateful day in 1990.

“My intention was to get sozzled,” says Richard, sipping and smiling. “You, on the other hand, were obviously up to something else because you kept ... disappearing. I remember after the tasting at Sevenhill winery the rest of us were about to get back into the car but you were still there in the cellar door, hovering, talking about it. You could clearly glean things I couldn’t.”

But why those wineries? How did he choose the cellar doors for us to visit?

“I was flying by seat of my pants,” he admits. “I’d only been in Adelaide three months. But I knew there were certain wineries where there was care and attention going into everything, where there was a sense of history and not rushing too fast, not embracing the commercial aspects and forgetting quality. There was no point taking you to big factories where there are twelve different products on sale in a metal building and you’re taken round by a girl in a uniform.

“I think it’s because I’m English - because we both are. We have that tradition of going round and looking for little pubs that people don’t know. That sense of exploration, of going off the beaten track and finding odd places. That’s why cellar doors like Rockford appealed. It looked cozy.”

Robert O'Callaghan
Rockford: connecting people

“Come on through the rabbit warren,” says Robert O’Callaghan as he leads me past the cellar door and into his small office. His loyal band of staff are setting up for one of Rockford’s regular, legendary lunches outside - a lunch that, regrettably, I’m going to have to miss - so we sit at a big old desk in the cool and talk about the last twenty years. And it soon becomes clear that here, not much has changed.

“Cellar door’s exactly the same as it was in 1990,” says Robert. “In fact, you were a bit stiffed that you didn’t get to stay for dinner then either. Just after I opened (in 1984) my marriage had gone down the gurgler. So the cellar door became my social life. If there were any people hanging around at 5 or 6 o’clock they usually ended up staying for something to eat and drink.”

It wasn’t always quite that social. “Oh, I had days when no-one came in,” says Robert. “But I also had an absolute commitment to not selling through a distributor or retail chains, so I had to stick it out. In the end it was the right decision, but it took ten years to get enough core customers to make it work. And we’re still primarily a cellar door business. Only five per cent export, still no distributor.”

When Robert set up Rockford in the mid-1980s, the wine industry was, to use his own phrase, on its arse. Almost nobody was getting into the game. Most wanted to get out.

“I was against the trend, I gotta say,” he says. “Talk was that the whole cellar door thing was finished, because of the busloads of drunks we were getting at the time. But I didn’t see it that way. I always saw cellar door as a critical opportunity to connect the people who drank the wine with the people who make the wine. Still see it that way.”

Ducking into Skillogalee

Dave and Diana Palmer had only owned the Skillogalee vineyard for a year when I visited in 1990, but the place had been going since the mid-70s, so the tiny cellar-door had a lovely lived-in atmosphere. It still does. There’s a timelessness here. In 1990 I took a picture from the car park looking up the hill. Two decades on, I take another picture from almost the same spot. They could have been shot on the same day.

Skillogalee Vineyard, 2010
The place also feels as though it’s thriving. A steady stream of visitors turns up while I’m there, trying wine at the tasting bench, heading into the small restaurant. But Dave Palmer is quick to burst my romantic bubble.

Dave Palmer
“It’s only recently that we feel that we have succeeded,” he says. “The early years were very hard. We worked seven days a week. Diane cooked seven days a week in the restaurant. It wasn’t until three years after we came here that we went to see our son play footy.”

Yes, there was a time, in the late 90s, early 2000s, when things were booming. The Palmers even bought the vineyard next door. Doubled production.

“But at that point the shock of oversupply in the industry hit us”, says Dave. “Suddenly, we couldn’t sell all our wine. So we had to get out there and sell the story. And, importantly, we kept the restaurant going. We knew that people who come to Skillogalee go on to tell the story for us - about ducking their head into cellar door, and about the nice garden.”

“We’ve worked very hard to bring it all back to a sense of place,” says Diana Palmer. “I love it when we come across people in London who tell us they’ve eaten on our verandah.”

Poetry and bullshit at Mitchell Wines

The biggest change at Mitchells in the last twenty years has been in the vineyard. Since the middle of the last decade, Andrew and Jane Mitchell have converted their estate to biodynamic farming. They’re particularly proud of the small herd of Highland cattle that provides manure for their compost and biodynamic preparations.

Andrew Mitchell and his cows
It’s easy to poke fun at biodynamics: Jane herself likes to jokingly complain to cellar door visitors that “if you’d told me 36 yrs ago when I married Andrew I’d be spending my Sundays shoveling shit...” - but it makes perfect sense to the Mitchells. For them, it’s a way of promoting soil health to sustain their dry-grown vineyards.

“The first irrigation didn’t appear in Clare until 1970,” Andrew reminds me. “Before that, everybody managed to make good wine without it. Some of the vineyards at Sevenhill were planted in the 1860s and they’re still there.”

“In many ways,” says Jane, “we’re basically returning to doing things the way Andrew’s father did back in the 1960s.”

Andrew agrees, pointing out that while a lot of young winemakers make a big deal these days about fermenting with wild yeasts, for example, it’s really just a case of back to the future: “I have a lovely memory of talking to Roly Birks (legendary winemaker at Wendouree) who said it wasn’t until the 1940s that he started ‘putting the ferment in’ - and even then that meant going to Leasingham winery to get a bucket from a ferment and seed his tanks with it.”

And then he quotes from the TS Eliot poem, Little Gidding: “‘We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time’.”

Brother John
Sevenhill: a tranquil place

“Welcome to Sevenhill,” says Brother John May, smiling his impish smile and shaking my hand.

“Hello Brother John, are you well?” I ask, a little concerned by the two large skin-tumor scars on the top of head.

“Oh yes,” eyes glinting, glancing heavenward. “Well, except for being de-horned...”

Mass at Sevenhill
On the surface, Sevenhill is different to how I remember it from 1990. The formerly cramped cellar door has been opened up, and audiovisual displays now tell the story of the Jesuit-run winery’s 160-year history. But at its heart, nothing at all has changed. And as Brother John - who started as the seventh Jesuit winemaker here in the 1960s - points out, that’s precisely the point.

Brother John explains that there is a spiritual significance to Sevenhill that people instinctively feel when they turn into the driveway. As well as the visual impact of the church, the vines and the gardens  - “We have all the scripture references,” he says. “We have the vine and the branches. We have green all the year round” - there’s the heritage of having 41 brothers buried in the crypt, and the fact that Brother John is leading the same life as those men were, for the same reason  - “And,” he says, smiling, “for the same pay!”

“It’s a tranquil place,” says Brother John. “It’s not a commercial place. It’s a manifestation of the words of the mass: ‘The fruit of the vine and the work of human hands’. It’s not something you can experience on Facebook.”

Smelling the vintage at St Hallett

The cellar door at St Hallett in the Barossa also has to be experienced first-hand - preferably at vintage time. Recently-installed sliding windows in one corner of the room look over an old but still working fermenting vat: when it’s full of purple-foaming shiraz grapes, visitors can see, smell and even taste the wine being made.

“For me it’s really important that people can get close to what we do and take back memories,” says longtime winemaker Stuart Blackwell. “I remember coming up to the Barossa in the mid-60s, going to Grant Burge’s Wilsford winery and smelling the vintage and that was it for me, career decided. The smell of ferment in the air gets you every time.”

Stuart Blackwell
Back in 1990, St Hallett was a privately owned company. For the last decade or so, it’s been part of the huge, Japanese owned multinational drinks company Lion. For most Australian wine businesses, large corporate ownership spells disaster, but Stuart is positive about how St Hallett has fared.

“A lot of good things can happen by having a big brother,” he says. “Lion leave us pretty much alone in the winemaking, but they have opened markets up for us, and helped us weather the storm of the last few years.”

The storm, of course, is far from over. But it has also forced St Hallett to focus on the important, fundamental things - like introducing cellar door visitors to the smell of vintage.

“We’ve asked ourselves: what do we believe in?” says Stuart. “Does [our wine] have a place? And we believe absolutely in Eden Valley riesling, in Barossa semillon - even though we can’t sell it! - and shiraz. You’ve got to have a reason for being.”

The Lehmanns having fun

It’s a hot afternoon. Peter Lehmann is perched at the end of the big old table in his big old kitchen, watching cricket on the telly. A fan drones. Margaret Lehmann drops ice cubes into glasses of water for us all. Peter lights another cigarette as Australia takes another wicket.

From his start at Yalumba in the 1940s, Peter Lehmann has seen the industry go through many cycles. It was the downturn of the 1970s that inspired him to leave the comfort of a big company and set up his own label. And despite the fact that his eponymous company grew during the 1990s to such an extent that it became a prime takeover target (it is now part of the Swiss Hess Family wine group) he and Margaret are excited by the proliferation of new, vibrant winemakers setting up shop across the region and the industry - winemakers like their sons, David and Phil.

“For visitors to the Barossa, the small winemakers have so much more interest than the big places,” says Peter. “In the long term I’m still pretty optimistic about the future. I see no reason to discourage either of our younger sons to give up their winemaking pursuits. Anything agricultural is a pendulum.”

Margaret’s clearly energized by her sons’ decision to continue winemaking. She’s describing David’s happily chaotic approach to vintage  - “He’ll have 35 ferments going and there he is dancing around like a cat on hot bricks - I love it!” - when, right on cue, he walks into the kitchen clutching a cold bottle of semillon.

Peter Lehmann (l) David Franz Lehmann (r)

Glasses are found. The wine is poured. And soon David Franz Lehmann is talking about the last twenty years. According to him, somewhere along the line, in the late 90s, early 2000s, the wine industry became too serious. Too much money in it.

“But back in your day, dad,” he says, looking across at Peter, smiling as he lights up another B&H, “you guys had a lot of fun. Thankfully, some of that’s come back: come to the Barossa, go down to McLaren Vale, over to the Yarra Valley - there’s idiots pumping out great wine everywhere and having a lot of fun.”

(A shorter version of this story appeared in Australian Gourmet Traveller WINE Magazine, April/May 2012. If anyone's interested, I took the picture of Skillogalee in 1990 on an Olympus OM10 and used the same lens to take all the other photographs in 2010 using an Olympus OM1 body. Yes, Virginia, these photographs were shot on film. Old skool.)

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Tasting in Technicolor

A few years ago I started tasting wine - and recording my impressions - in a different way. I haven’t shared my new approach to wine evaluation with too many people because while it makes perfect sense to me it could appear odd to anybody used to tasting and describing wine conventionally. But a remarkable new book - Neurogastronomy, how the brain creates flavour and why it matters, by neurobiologist Gordon M Shepherd ($40, Colombia University Press) - shows there may be method in my madness after all.

I was taught to taste by compartmentalizing my experience: first smell the wine’s aromas intently, then take a sip and roll it around your tastebuds and, after you’ve spat or swallowed, think about the aftertaste. This stage-by-stage process is employed right through to professional Australian wine shows where scoring out of 20 is traditionally broken down into 3 points for colour, 7 for aroma and 10 for taste, body, etc.

But it began to dawn on me that evaluating wine like this doesn’t reflect the holistic, seamless way that real people experience wine. So I started skipping the initial smell stage and just putting the wine straight in my mouth. And I discovered that I could capture a more complete impression of the wine by doing this because I was experiencing the tactile sensations of the liquid - the tastes and temperature and touch of the wine on my tongue - at the same time as smelling it retronasally, via the passage at the back of the throat that leads up to the olfactory receptors in the nasal cavity.

Now, in Neurogastronomy, Gordon Shepherd corroborates my approach by describing in great detail how it is this combined sensation of taste and smell that leads to the rich and vivid perception of flavour. Brain scans have shown that while taste stimulates one part of the cortex and smell another, simultaneous stimulus elicits a response in other areas of the brain as well.

Not only that, but Shepherd also describes how the flavour system works by using visual language. The olfactory mechanism located at the roof of your nasal cavity, he says, forms unique ‘flavour images’ from the thousands of molecules released by the food or drink in your mouth, much as your brain forms a unique, whole, easily recognisable picture of a human face from the many visual signals it receives.

For me, this is a revelation. You see, as well as using words to describe various qualities in a wine (e.g.: “this Barossa shiraz is jam-packed with dense dark fruit and robust tannic grip”) a few years ago I also started drawing little pictures to represent my experience of tasting a wine: so that same Barossa shiraz, say, might be represented by an opaque black blob surrounded by a sturdy rectangular frame.

As I say, I haven’t made too much of a song and dance about this because, well, at times I’ve felt like a bit of a pretentious wanker. But now I’ve read Neurogastronomy, I don’t feel so foolish at all.

(This is a version of an article that first appeared in The Weekend Australian on March 17, 2012. The subject of taste, flavour and neurogastronomy was also covered by Radio National's First Bite program on March 24, 2012 - listen here)

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Wine Australia ditches tasting panel - common sense prevails

Well, well, well. Wine Australia, the industry’s regulatory body, has scrapped the controversial export tasting panel.

Full cloud alert: one of these things is not like the others ...
I wrote about the tasting approval process in The Weekend Australian last year. Since 1929, before being allowed to leave our shores, every wine destined for export been assessed by a panel of wine professionals to ensure it is ‘sound and merchantable’ and does not ‘bring Australia’s reputation into disrepute.

I - and other journalists - have long pointed out the problems at the heart of this process. If a wine has already received an export order from a customer overseas, for example, surely that alone makes it ‘merchantable’? And while many of the wines that were being rejected for being faulty (i.e., ‘unsound’), they are exactly the kinds of funky, quirky, idiosyncratic styles that could actually enhance Australia’s image overseas - an image founded on technically sound (there’s that word again) but ultimately bland wines.

This issue enjoyed a burst of international attention in August when winemaker Gary Mills of Jamsheed in the Yarra Valley hit Twitter to complain about how he had had a wine rejected by the panel - despite the fact that it had already been selected by a Master of Wine to be served at a special dinner in Japan, and was receiving rave reviews back home.

I tracked down a bottle - it was a 2011 cabernet franc - and tried it. Yes, it was hardly what you’d call squeaky clean - it was a bit cloudy and a but sharp - but it was super-juicy, fun, refreshing, and very much in the ‘natural’ style so beloved of trendy wine bars and indie retailers (indeed, it was floor-stacked inside the front door of the indie retailer I bought it from). A few re-Tweets later and suddenly international journalists were taking an interest, joining the chorus of disapproval for the approval process.

Soon, rumours started circulating (on Twitter of course) that Wine Australia was seriously thinking of disbanding the export tasting panel. And now, a few months later, this has indeed come to pass.

So what happened? Why the change of heart? The power of the press? A triumph for Twitter? Or simply a case of good old-fashioned common sense prevailing?

Probably a little of all of the above. Certainly the new approach is more sensible and realistic than the old approach: rather than mandatory pre-export tasting for all wines, the existing system of compliance audits (which includes checking winery records and labels) will be expanded to include analysis and taste-tests.

It would be great if this could be supported by some in-depth wine training for the auditors (it would have been good if this could have been offered to the old tasting inspectors, too). Anybody assessing whether a wine is ‘sound and merchantable’ need to be exposed to the incredible diversity of styles out there: from big, black, overoaked, over-alcholic shiraz to cloudy, orange, amphora-fermented sauvignon blanc, almost anything goes out there in the modern wine scene.

As Wine Australia chief executive Andrew Cheesman himself said when announcing the overhaul: ‘The market place and consumers should be the arbiter of wine quality.’

(a version of this article first appeared in The Weekend Australian A Plus on 11 Feb 2012)

Monday, January 16, 2012

What’s in your wine?

(A version of this article first appeared in The Weekend Australian A Plus section on 31 December 2011)

photo: Adrian Lander
Poor old wine. As we slosh our way through the festive season, our favourite Coonawarra cabernet is no doubt copping more than its fair share of blame for the headaches and hangovers we are currently enduring.

Some people identify the wine’s alcohol - specifically the alcohol in that fifth glass of Coonawarra cabernet - as the cause of our predicament. But many accuse the ‘other stuff’ in wine of making us feel bad: it must have been the preservatives/the additives/the sulphur dioxide - that’s why my head hurts this morning.

There is a widespread view out there among the wine-drinking community that the additives and processing aids routinely used in wine production have a detrimental effect on the drinker. There is also growing anxiety about what exactly is being added to Australian wine in the first place, and the detrimental effect this is having on wine’s image.

Consumer concern couldn’t have been expressed any more alarmingly than in a recent news headline in The Australian: ‘Nod for laxative chemical to be used in winemaking’. The chemical in question is sodium carboxymethylcellulose, or CMC, a thickener, already used in a huge range of products from toothpaste to ice cream (and, yes, laxatives) which has also just been approved as a wine additive by Food Standards Australia New Zealand. Despite wine industry assurances that CMC is harmless, the headline underlines that niggling worry; I mean, sodium carboxymethylcellulose ... it just sounds so unnatural.

One of the reasons people are worried about what’s in their wine is the fact that very little information about what’s in their wine appears on the label. Other than listing mandatory information such as alcohol content and the presence or even possible presence of widely-recognised allergens - sulphur dioxide (added as a preservative) and milk, eggs or nuts (used as clarifying agents) - the winemaker is not required to declare any of the dozens of approved additives or processing aids allowed by FSANZ.

A few months ago, when I wrote about the possible approval of CMC and whether such additives should be listed on wine labels, I asked readers for feedback. I was inundated with emails: it appears the vast majority of you would indeed like to see ingredients labelling on wine.

Two areas of concern emerged: health issues associated with drinking wine ‘laden’ with chemicals, and the perception of winemaking as an increasingly industrialized process.

“There is no doubt in my mind that the amount of chemicals in wine impacts on my health,” said one reader, echoing many. “There are times I can drink three glasses of wine from a bottle and wake up fine, and then other nights when I have three from another wine I wake up with a splitting headache. I feel very strongly that the Government has been criminally negligent in not legislating to have every single additive displayed on the label of all food [because] wine is a food as far as I am concerned - it goes into my digestive system!”

Creina Stockley, health and regulatory information manager for the Australian Wine Research Institute, hears similar concerns all the time. She points out that, while a few people are genuinely allergic to some wine additives (primarily sulphur dioxide), by far the primary cause of adverse reactions is - ahem - the alcohol, present in far higher concentration than any other component in wine. In other words, she says, it is highly unlikely that processing aids or additives are the wicked culprits they’re often made out to be.

But health isn’t the only thing you’re concerned about. The perceived over-manipulation of wine also threatens its image as a natural product.

One veteran winemaker wrote in to voice his contempt at the approval of CMC as a wine additive. “The search for more and more processing aids [like this] is driven by the commercial need to make an acceptable wine from fruit that has been either grown in an inappropriate climate, harvested too early or too late or converted to wine by incompetent winemaking,” he harrumphed. “Grapes harvested at physiological ripeness and handled by a competent winemaker should not need that many additives or enhancements to ‘improve’ quality. The addition of [CMC to the list] will further strengthen the perception (particularly overseas) that Australian wine is too ‘manufactured’.”

Many readers agreed, advocating labeling. “I think it’s only fair that we wine drinkers should be able to easily tell which winemakers are brave enough to let the grapes speak for themselves, rather than manipulate the juice to fit their ideal through the use of a cocktail of chemicals,” wrote one. “I travel to many wine producing regions,” wrote another “and if a winery promoted that it was limiting what additives it used I would make sure I visited there before less additive-friendly wineries”.

Katrina Birchmeier of Hobart’s Garagistes restaurant, which prides itself on its list of natural, additive-free wine, is adamant: “I definitely think that wines should be required to state on their labels all the ingredients used in the wine making process. I'm sure it would cause great uproar across the Australian winemaking industry. But if producers are willing to put this stuff into their wine (and drink it themselves), then why should they be scared to put it on a label? Consumers need to be able to make an informed choice.”

Some readers, however, felt that full disclosure is not the best way to address consumer concerns - and could even make matters worse.

“No, wine makers should not list all the ingredients and processing aids,” wrote one reader, an industrial chemist. “Take diammonium phosphate. That sounds like a ‘chemical’, so it must be bad for you, right? In fact it’s a yeast nutrient and there’s none left in the wine by the end of the fermentation process. I'm sure that the more these additives are referred to in 'chemical' terms, the more the public will view the product as synthetic rather than natural. To reduce a wine to a list of its component ingredients is to reduce it to a science, not to elevate the art. As some great salesman once said, ‘Sell the sizzle, not the steak.’”

Winemaker Frank van de Loo from Mount Majura vineyard in Canberra has a similar if slightly different view: while he doesn’t think ingredients labeling is necessary, he’s all for transparency - and has even done something about it.

“I think if we winemakers are going to bandy big chemical names about,” he says, “we need to help people know what they are and what they are there for.”  So he has set up What’s In Wine, a blog that acts as a “plain-English (and slightly opinionated) guide” to wine additives and processing aids.

If you are at all concerned about this topic, or if you want to learn exactly what additives are available to winemakers, van de Loo’s blog is worth reading, as is the list of health-related FAQs on the Australian Wine Research Institute’s web site. Neither will put you off your wine entirely - but they might inspire you to seek out wines that haven’t been buggered-around with too much.


Why do some wines cause me problems while I have absolutely no problem with others?

“Unfortunately,” says Creina Stockley, “there is no satisfactory answer to this question. There are very few actual allergens in wine, the main one being sulphur dioxide (and other sulphites used as preservatives). But the majority of people aren’t allergic to sulphites; there’s not even a huge number of people who are intolerant.” So we can rule out sulphites as the bad guy? Well, yes - and besides, she says, wine contains relatively low levels of sulphites: you’ll find more in supermarket sausages or burgers, and much more - ten times the amount - in dried apricots or sliced apple. Stockley suggests that different wines affecting people in different ways is more likely to be caused by compounds derived from the grapes themselves. “There are hundreds of naturally occurring compounds in wine,” she says. “It’s very hard to pinpoint how they interact - and how the food you’re eating reacts with them. And there are so many other factors to take into account: as you get older your body handles the alcohol less well; for women, hormones play an enormous part; it could even come down to lack of sleep: how tired you are when you drink the wine.”

I can drink European wine without any side-effects but Australian wine gives me a headache. Do European wines contain fewer chemicals?

No. Contrary to popular opinion, it’s just not true that European wines contain fewer additives than their Australian counterparts. “It’s a myth,” confirms Stockley. “Australia’s standards are aligned with European standards: they can add the same things we can.” In other words, cheap industrial wine is cheap industrial wine, regardless of where it’s from. Indeed, says Stockley, the recent approval by FSANZ of carboxymethylcellulose was in part to bring our standards in line with the rest of the world: CMC is already an allowed wine additive in many other countries. Instead, Stockley suspects people’s different experiences drinking Australian and European wines may again be down to varying natural constituents in the wine derived from different soils and the use of different grape varieties.

If a wine is labeled ‘organic’ does that mean it contains no added chemicals?

Not necessarily. Just fewer added chemicals. Australian organic certifying organisations do allow some additives such as sulphur dioxide but in lower doses than in ‘conventional’ winemaking: according to the AWRI web site, “the amount of sulphur dioxide which can be added to ‘organic’ wines is approximately 50 per cent less than that which can be added to ‘non-organic’ wines.” And, to be fair, conscientious, quality-minded ‘conventional’ wine producers also try to limit the additions to a fraction of what’s allowed by FSANZ.

So ‘organic wines’ aren’t the same as ‘preservative-free’ wines?

No. You can find many organic wines that do contain low levels of sulphites - and you can find wines labelled ‘preservative-free’ that are made from conventionally-grown grapes. However, in my experience the best preservative-free wines are made by certified organic producers: Botobolar and Lowe in Mudgee; Temple Bruer in Langhorne Creek and Battle of Bosworth in McLaren Vale.