There’s fat in your wine, but the fatty acids are the issue

Oil and water don’t mix (unless you add egg, but then you’ve got an emulsion…and mayonnaise). Wine is essentially water plus alcohol, which doesn’t mix well with oil, either. Since there’s no oil slick layer floating on top of your glass of wine the way fat drops glisten on top of a bowl of ramen, you’ve probably assumed that the wine is fat-free. And if you Google “is there fat in wine?” about 102,000,000 results will tell you that you’re right.

Which is wrong, sort of. Wine does, strictly speaking, include very small amounts of fat. New and improved chemical analyses of New Zealand sauvignon blancs have identified that they at least 25 different kinds of triacylglycerides — the chemical reference for your standard fat molecule: three fatty acids (tri-acyl) bound to a glycerol molecule (glyceride). That’s in addition to an assortment of other fat relatives such as free fatty acids and some waxes.

It’s actually the free fatty acids that are most important here. (Those fats are there in such minuscule quantities that even the jumpiest health journalist can’t pretend there’s anything to jump about there.) They’re present in milligram per liter quantities (so we’re talking less than the amount of sugar found even in truly dry wines) which is enough to make a significant sensory impact on wine indirectly. 

Yeast need lots of free fatty acids to grow well; they’re a major raw ingredient for new cell walls. With plenty of oxygen they can make their own; without oxygen, that particular yeast production line shuts down. Fermenting wine is a mostly anaerobic job for yeast: they get a little oxygen exposure at the top of the vat, a little if the wine is vigorously mixed to keep the skins submerged, but mostly need to rely on the fatty acids initially contained in the grape juice to tide them over. If that source fails, a long and very complicated chain of yeast stress response events kick in, ultimately ending in stuck fermentations, icky aromas, or both. In short, the amount and kind of fatty acids in particular and lipids in general affects wine aroma.

That’s not a wholly unheard-of problem. Overly enthusiastic efforts to clarify white juice before fermentation can pull fatty acids out, too, to the yeast’s detriment. But, ironically, the more common issue is too much of the wrong kind of fatty acid after the yeast have been at it awhile. Lacking the ability to synthesize cell wall components they really need, too much of cell wall molecules they can make (decanoic and octanoic acids) accumulate with toxic consequences. The effect fatty acids have on yeast is a bit like the effect fat has on humans: too much of the wrong kind kills us after awhile, but not enough of the right kind can cause serious problems, too.

But there’s a different and possibly more interesting point to be made here. Lipids originally present in the grape juice affect yeast metabolism, which affects wine aroma, which gives us new places to intervene to make alterations. Adding lipids to South Australian chardonnay boosted production of aromatic molecules: esters, aldehydes, higher alcohols, and volatile acids. The authors of that sauv blanc study speculate that adding specific lipids might be a way to create new, different styles of that so very identifiably aromatic wine.

This information is splendid in two ways. First, it tells us more about that complex and ill-described business of how winemaking works. Second, it may be a way to experiment with new wines. But, third, it could open up one more avenue for adding stuff to make wine fit a particular sensory profile, which we might more generally call “manipulation” and to which many of us* are generally opposed but which fuels the contemporary commercial wine-as-supermarket-commodity industry and supplies inexpensive reds and whites to fit market niche-targeted profiles specifically designed for the glasses of middle-class suburban mothers between 31 and 40 or single 22-29 condo dwellers who prefer to drink wine before dinner with friends on Thursday and watch Orange is the New Black. All wine is manipulated, all wine contains fat, but what that means for any individual case is a different question.

 

 

*Assuming, perhaps unfairly, that “us” is mostly comprised of people who prefer to drink and/or help produce unique and expressive wines that rely more for direction on local traditions, personal philosophy, and vintage conditions than Nielsen numbers.

 

The joyful paradox of non-icon wines and New Zealand chardonnay

Everyone makes chardonnay. Chardonnay is therefore ubiquitous and boring. Everyone makes chardonnay. Chardonnay is therefore endlessly diverse and interesting. If you like chardonnay, you’re never going to run out of wines to try, and with just a little effort they’re all (okay; mostly all) going to taste different.

Having an iconic variety is good for marketing: consumers can latch onto a recognizable and rememberable identity that, once tried and liked, they can come back to over and over. Willamette Valley pinot noir. Napa cab. Marlborough sauvignon blanc. Without such a regional brand, wines have a harder time finding a place in consumers’ memories and, consequently, wine lists and store shelves. Washington state…riesling? Merlot? Syrah? 

But having an iconic wine brings on a paradoxically both-and problem and joy that looks a lot like the paradoxical both-and problem of chardonnay. Stand-out wines tend to overshadow other, very interesting but minor wines that remain less well-known. But because they’re less well-known, interested persons can enjoy all the loveliness of finding a hidden treasure that, frankly, would be less of a treasure were it not so hidden. Oregon chardonnay and it’s clamor-inducing annual symposium, despite chard being less than 10% of the state’s production, is an excellent case in point. So is New Zealand chardonnay.

None of the three New Zealand winegrowing regions I recently visited on my dissertation-data-collecting tour is especially well-known for chardonnay, but they’re are among the wines that interested me most everywhere. That’s not to discount the balance of some Hawke’s Bay syrahs (and even one or two pinots there), or the fun of non-standard Marlborough sauvignon blancs (and a few pinots there too), or the diverse pinot gris of Central Otago (and, yes, even some pinot noir in that iconic pinot region). But it is very much to say that Kiwi chardonnay can and should be “hidden treasures” worth digging under the icons to find.

The unsurprising problem remains that these wines are hard to find outside of New Zealand. The only good thing I can say about that is that were New Zealand churning out as much chardonnay as standard mass-market sauvignon blanc, it might develop into a similarly iconic style that would quench so much of the non-standard joy that seems to come through these wines.

Elephant Hill Chardonnay 2013 (Hawke’s Bay) – Elephant Hill is ripping gewürztraminer out of it’s coastal vineyard to make room for more chardonnay, which is a real shame — the last vintage of the gewürztraminer is beautifully rich with magnolia apricot jam and an unctuous finish — but makes sense when you try the chard. Writing about big zesty lemon flavors backed up by oak and vanilla with some pleasant green notes sandwiched in between sounds fairly ordinary, but this wine isn’t: it’s briny, extraordinarily fresh and zesty, but still full rather than sharp in the mouth.

Fromm Clayvin Vineyard Chardonnay 2010 (Marlborough) – It’s hard to say too many good things about Fromm’s chardonnays. Savory, with lots of lime and some herbaceousness over a fairly big wine carried by enough oak that I’d appreciate seeing this again in a few more years. Great, long, lime zest-driven finish. The LaStrada remains complex and bordering on savory in a lighter style.

Felton Road chardonnay 2014 (Bannockburn, Central Otago; barrel tasting) – Some of the chardonnays I encountered in Central Otago felt disjointed, like someone was trying to tow the line mid-way between creamy weight and steely acidity and instead ended up making something with elements of each that didn’t quite fit together in the end. Felton Road’s tries and succeeds, with interesting and well-integrated acidity keeping from flabbiness a wine with definite mouth-filling creaminess and palate weight.

Story and strategic choices in talking about Central Otago subregions

Central Otago went from zero to international recognition in less time than it takes to test the merit of a great Burgundy vintage. Good for them. It’s occupants had the advantage of a favorable climate, enthusiastic pioneers, and in many cases an enviable lot of capital investment, but they also experimented generously and — most importantly — became polished storytellers. The stories may in fact have outpaced the wines, which is less a criticism of the latter than an acknowledgement that they are very much still figuring out what they’re about. And so, while it’s obvious that subregional differences are dramatic enough to shout about, not much shouting actually happens on that account. One: they don’t yet have the maturity for more than broad subregional outlines. Two: it might not be part of the story they want to tell in any case.

Driving through Central makes it clear that subregional differences should be important. Driving in from coastal Otago (the Dunedin area, where I live), the first substantial growing area you encounter is Alexandra, a dry, flattish valley with a large (for this area) town. Cross the hill and drive past the dam and you’re in Cromwell, where many vineyards enjoy the mitigating effects of Lake Dunstan. North at the top of the lake, the Bendigo vineyards are widely known as seeing both the hottest and the most extreme weather. Go east toward Queenstown and the Bannockburn vineyards are perched above the Kawarau river. Through the pass further toward Queenstown, the Gibbston valley has the highest elevation and the coolest climate. And then there are the outliers: dear Nick Mills at Rippon in Wanaka; vineyards in Waitaki closer to the coast. These are obvious differences. Central Otago doesn’t tend toward subtle.

Plenty of conversation is happening about subregions, none of them questioning whether they’re significant. The questions instead are about what is significant. Are site differences principally related to soil differences as you move up the “terraces” from the valley floor? Or is the elevation more significant? Maybe it’s enough to talk about those big subregions. There’s that first problem: it’s hard to tell in part because vines are young, but maybe even more so for want of continuity. Vineyard managers, winemakers, owners, directions, and styles have flexed enough here that two challenges become significant: creating distinctly regional pictures independent of those other factors, and passing down sensibly kept records and knowledge gained from experience. The openness to experimentation and international flux that has helped these folk find a niche in the pinot world so quickly has, at least in some cases, come at the expense of some stability. Point the first.

Point the second: wine, and Central Otago, is all about story. Subregions may not be the story people want to tell here. Yet. Adept storytelling is a stand-out feature of many successful wineries here: to justify selling $70 pinot noir with nearly no history behind them, it has to be. Telling a story doesn’t mean talking about everything that goes into making a wine; it means carefully curating elements that create a specific image. Subregionality may not be part of that story. In some respects, that choice is about market readiness, which is obvious. They’ve succeeded when someone in Louisiana or Newcastle knows where Central Otago is; talking about Bannockburn is too much.

But it’s also a choice about style and direction. Some wineries here bottle from estate vineyards. Many blend fruit from different vineyards for balance and complexity and, no doubt, economy and ease. Matt Kramer told producers in 2013 that using many clones was (one; he had a few other interesting points) key to making exciting pinot noir, and it could be said that blending across multiple vineyard sites is similarly looking for complexity. As those vineyards age, and maybe as they’re planted with increasingly diverse clones, maybe

Back to choosing a story. Wineries here have mostly built their identities around concepts other than subregions. If that’s working for them, serious investment may not go into defining, refining, and emphasizing subregional stories.

Since differentiating yourself is ever necessarily the new world winery game, it makes sense that a (but not all) winery here is built expressly around exemplifying subregional differences. That’s Valli, where Grant Taylor bottles separate pinots from Gibbston, Bannockburn, and Waitaki. Tasting those three wines, made by the same winemaker in essentially the same ways, is an education that makes me wish Taylor’s portfolio included bottles from Bendigo and the other subregions as well. The Gibbston wine is the sharpest with the highest acidity, the Bannockburn the biggest and smokiest, the Waitaki the spiciest with the most prominent tannins. The Waitaki stands out to me as the most interesting wine, possibly because it’s the least standard and, dare I say, maybe the most complex: while the Gibbston and Bannockburn are well-made and enjoyable wines, the Waitaki has the thing that makes me want to keep coming back to the glass.

That’s the direction I hope Central Otago pinots take as they grow up: not just well-made wines with fancy labels and nice stories, but intriguing and maybe even intellectually satisfying wines. Whether they find that intrigue in multiple clones on single vineyard sites, blending across regions, or even just older vines under winemakers who decide to stay put, I’ll hope that Valli keeps doing what Valli does, and maybe more of it.

**By the by, “Central Otago” is a “district” within the “region” of Otago, where a “region” is roughly equivalent to a province or a state. Central Otago is a recognized Geographical Indication — it can be used on labels going to the EU, with a defined meaning — and various subregional names are allowed as “Appellations of Origin” on labels going to the States.