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.


On Palate Press: Machine vs. hand-harvesting (and our future with robots in winemaking)

A few years back, a group of Auckland-based researchers established that machine-harvested Marlborough sauvignon blanc has higher aromatic thiol concentrations = tastes more intensely Marlborough sauv blanc-y = is better than wine from hand-harvested grapes. I don’t know how widely that logic is known amongst wine consumers, in New Zealand or elsewhere. Reading back labels in my local wine shop makes it clear that the hand-picked grapes = superior wine logic rules in the minds of marketers and, if they’re any bellwether (a worthwhile question), at least some consumers.

Marlborough sauvignon blanc aside, is that prejudice justified? My January piece for Palate Press addresses that question. The short answer is that hand-harvested grapes are in many settings more about feeling good about purchasing genuine artisan wine than about quality or flavor. The longer answer is here.

Saying that hand vs. machine harvesting is becoming less and less of a quality issue, with better equipment in the field and in the winery, isn’t the same as saying that the difference doesn’t matter. It does, to our perceptions of what we drink. But it’s also impossible not to see this as one more instance of Robots Will Take Our Jobs, and a particularly hard-hitting one with wine such a cultural icon. A lot of vacuous dithering takes place in the media around this topic (even in outlets like The Atlantic, though this piece from The Economist might be an exception) and, to be honest, I’m not sure that I have anything worthwhile to add. We’re headed, I think, for a major shift in how people work, earn money/obtain necessary resources, and spend their time. That shift may come in the form of an organized political (maybe governmental, maybe by large companies) decision to redefine work and money, or it may come as a necessary post-degenerate organic movement after the fall of Rome. Either way, being human, we’ll continue to find meaning in our work whether that means choosing to harvest grapes by hand because it’s meaningful to do so, even when a machine/robot can do a better job, by redefining wine quality such that the robot can’t do the job as well, or by understanding human winemaking as a conceptual art independent of the physical work of our hands.


New World Ingenuity, Interdisciplinarity, and New Zealand’s Sauvignon Blanc Programme

I’ve been reading James Halliday’s and Hugh Johnson’s lovely, rambling The Art and Science of Wine (Firefly, 2007), with something of the feeling that I’m sitting beside the old gentlemen’s fireplace listening to them hold forth. The book is short on citations and uneven on explanations, but full of two careers’ worth of wisdom. They describe without getting bogged down too much in the how or why of things, a good technique for teaching in a hand-waving, appreciative sort of way and for learning without paying too much notice to the reality that you’re being taught.

A theme — mostly tacit, but persistent — that sticks with the first few sections of the book is the difference in marketing and, therefore, winemaking strategies between the Old World (especially the classic French regions) and the New (especially Australia and New Zealand). Old World: make it and they will come. New World: no one knows who we are, so we’d better be distinctive and creative and different (and tasty). The socio-cultural-historical-economic factors driving that difference are too extensive to explain here and, besides, are largely a matter of common sense. And if it’s an oversimplification, it’s still largely true.

New Zealand has had to fight hard for a place in the global wine eye. Not only is the Kiwi wine industry young and from a remote location, their production is tiny. Yet they’ve unquestionably succeeded. We’ve all heard about Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, and many if not most of us have heard about Marlborough and Central Otago Pinot Noir. New Zealand’s problem (okay, one of New Zealand’s problems) now is that they’ve played the region-grape association game too well. Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc can be too easy to stereotype. The industry seems especially concerned that their wine is too expensive, with cheaper Sauv Blanc from Chile and South Africa and elsewhere on the market, to keep being competitive without some kind of new consumer incentive.

So, the Kiwis are trying to teach their pony every trick in the book (and maybe invent a few new ones) in an effort called, creatively, the New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc Programme.

A partnership between essentially every major wine research institute in the country and a few major producers (notably Pernod Ricard), the Sauvignon Blanc Programme was first funded in 2004 and has a promise of continued funding through 2016. 2010-2016 is it’s second phase: “Sauvignon Blanc 2: ‘novel wine styles for new markets.'” Phase I largely served as information-gathering about Sauvignon Blanc-specific flavors and flavor production; phase II is aimed at optimizing and manipulating those flavors. The goal is to improve the quality of existing wine, but also to carve out new styles from the harmonious-but-homogenous* cat-piss-on-gooseberry  style for which New Zealand in general and Marlborough in particular has become world-famous.

The exemplary thing about this programme, in addition to it’s duration, is its interdisciplinarity. An effort to solve one problem — how to diversify Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc — is bringing together plant cell biologists and viticulturists and wine chemists and yeast geneticists and sensory scientists and cognitive scientists and assorted biotechnologists and industry folk — winemakers and growers and business and marketing people — all with different perspectives on how to solve that one problem. In the process, they’re creating solid new science, funding Masters and PhD students who will be important to the industry in a few years, and fueling market growth: good for research, good for industry.

Industry dollars are a main source of funding for wine research everywhere, but rarely is the collaboration this diverse or long-standing. The scope of SB1 and SB2 are fueling research far beyond just bringing a new and improved white wine to market. Here, the Kiwi homogeneity is serving them well: even if not everyone makes Sauvignon Blanc, the industry as a whole obviously rides on it. I wonder what would happen if other winemaking regions could identify one massive problem relevant to more or less everyone, focus their resources, and sponsor all of the region’s top researchers to help solve it.

I suspect that multiple different Sauvignon Blanc flavor profiles are going to be a hard sell to all but the most esoterically sophisticated Americans, though perhaps the more important UK market will be better educated enough to pay attention. We’ve already seen scientific publications from this project; we may just have to wait to judge the success of the wine.

Market pressures don’t always make for good science. But, sometimes, they do.