“Sod the wine, I want to suck on the writing. This man White is an instinctive writer, bloody rare to find one who actually pulls it off, as in still gets a meaning across with concision. Sharp arbitrage of speed and risk, closest thing I can think of to Cicero’s ‘motus continuum animi.’

Probably takes a drink or two to connect like that: he literally paints his senses on the page.”

DBC Pierre (Vernon God Little, Ludmila’s Broken English, Lights Out In Wonderland ... Winner: Booker prize; Whitbread prize; Bollinger Wodehouse Everyman prize; James Joyce Award from the Literary & Historical Society of University College Dublin)





28 March 2018


rejected, but still full of sugar: mouldy, raisined, machine-harvested fruit in 2011

Is this the Age of the Snake? Typical rort rumours arise as law relaxes

As the mists of Easter roll in over the tail of vintage 2018, and the fruit still hanging chugs up through the Baumé - sixteen, seventeen, more - the tanks of many Australian winemakers contain a new addition they're not supposed to be fluent in: water. 

The old "Black Snake" - the water hose - was a long-time friend of winemakers keen to get their strong wines back under control. A few minutes of the rainwater hose in the fresh must could present a table beverage more along the lines of what was traditionally acceptable in the alcohol division. Like wine of 13.5 to 14 per cent ethanol. 

But it was illegal to add water. 

Until February 9th this year, that is, when the Australian New Zealand Food Standards Code was altered after persistent lobbying by The Winemakers’ Federation of Australia and the Australian Grape and Wine Authority. 

Of course there's no need to add water if you pick good fruit at the right time! 

Now, providing that "the amount added being the very minimum required to achieve the desired effect," the new code "expressly permits the limited addition of water to high sugar must and juice to reduce the chance of problems arising during fermentation ... The amendment establishes that water may be added to grape juice or must to reduce the sugar level of the juice or must to a minimum of 13.5 degrees Baumé." 

All good so far. Many winemaking countries we compete with for international shelf space had permitted the practise since Jesus made his amarone at the wedding at Qana. 

The Australian industry bodies quite rightly sought a flatter playing field. Many observers, like the writer, and wine operatives of all sorts welcomed what seemed to be a logical and sensible move. 

To lever their argument into legislation, the proponents had eventually used Global Warming as their fulcrum: recent changes to vintage weather often meant harvesters, whether human or mechanical, were simply too scarce when heatwaves ripened the crop at an unseemly, inconvenient pace and everybody struggled to pick their grapes in a reasonable condition.  Simultæneously.
"Continuing to tolerate this lack of a level playing field is difficult to defend," the lobbyists had argued, when "the ability to add judicious quantities of water has no adverse effects on human health (in fact, may even provide health benefits); involves no consumer deception; maintains wine authenticity by ensuring the product’s characteristic features arise from the harvested grapes; takes into account particular climatic and other production conditions; is based on the reasonable practical need to enhance the organoleptic qualities and consumer acceptance of the wine and ensures the addition is limited to the minimum necessary to achieve the desired objective." 

The change was announced with the back-up of the excellent research paper of University of Adelaide PhD candidate Olaf Schelezki, which showed the organoleptic changes to such wine were not only minor, but could be advantageous to the drinker. Such wine, well-made, could offer a safer health outcome with a deeper organoleptic/gastronomic satisfaction. 

All neat and tidy. Fewer headaches in the pipeline. You little trimmer! 

Since then, we've seen a harvest that started with a series of heatwaves, putting on early ripeness, followed by patterns of cool moist weather, mercifully eased by drying breezes. 

This dried the canopies and helped the berries get on with their raisining.  

Across most of the state, wineries have been fairly full, but apart from that fast start we've not had the panic seen in some other recent years. 

So why is the rumour machine full of grumbles about big companies deliberately letting a lot of fruit hang well into the sixteens and beyond? 

They wouldn't, would they? 

You bet they would. 

The law now provides an incentive for bullying buyers to delay harvest a week or two while the sugars go up, the acids fall and the berries raisin and shrivel. And goodness me! Look what happens: the tonnages shrivel, too! 

To decrease their shareholders' exposure to the wiles of nature and industry, the current accounting fashion has big companies sub-contracting not only their grapegrowing, but increasingly, their actual base winemaking. They buy bulk, sometimes made to their recipe.

There's a very frigging big temptation here whoever makes the call: let the crop concentrate in sugar, fall in tonnage, and cost a lot less to purchase. 

Pick it at sixteen or seventeen after it's shed a third of its original crop weight, screw the grower, and to make up the loss of volume, poke the old Black Snake in the hopper. With impunity. 

You can add all the other bits and pieces to dress it up later: acid, enzymes, colour, tannin, aromatic yeasts, wood chips ... the controlling legislation doesn't list prohibited ingredients, but instead offers a menu of stuff the manufacturer can lawfully use. You should read it here.

Introduced to make life easier for responsible producers caught in an unforseen vintage trap, this new law has opened the floodgate for a wave of change too few saw coming.  

Not just change to the actual practise of business - there's a big opportunity here for the contract lawyers - but a change to wine style and flavour that may not be all good for all concerned.

Business grows precarious when the growing and manufacture of wine gets this close to the old battle to please the drinker, but only just enough to keep the shareholder fat. 

In the world of haute cuisine, through luxury goods and other unnecessary commodities,  such polarising of primary producer and profit-taker is always destructive. 

Prime quality comes first from the sky and the ground, not the refinery. 

If you seek to hold the respect of your customer, you nurture your grower, not the water company.  

At least the freshly-legitimate Black Snake offers a new opportunity for the winemakers who judge our wine shows to accurately and honestly report on any adverse changes that eventually become evident on the tasting bench.


Dr David Jeffery FRACI CChem
Associate Professor in Wine Science
The University of Adelaide
Department of Wine and Food Science
ARC Training Centre for Innovative Wine Production 
Waite Campus 
PMB 1, Glen Osmond SA 5064, Australia

Food Standards Australia New Zealand
13 December 2016 
Approval report
Application A1119 
Additionof Water to Facilitate Wine fermentation 

The University of Adelaide 
ARC Training Centre for Innovative Wine Production 
Technical note 
Waterinto wine - Pre-fermentation strategies for producing lower alcohol wines


Anonymous said...

always attacking the big refineries what about the growers who over crop and over water and so take longer to ripen and reach flavour maturity?? It works both ways and I would say that one balances out the other and both are in the minority. Given the weather why wouldnt a winemaker want some more hang time particularly when fruit condition isnt suffering.

Anonymous said...

You are spot on once again. I am a grower supplying to two large Barossa entities and have a substantial amount of Shiraz that wont be picked until "after Easter" - watching them shrivel now. Other patch was picked last week well over the Grower Supply Agreement target baume on the basis 'we don't think the flavors are there yet or you don't have consistent ripeness across the vineyard and remember baume is only one indicator - weasel words are cheaps you also have your fruit downgraded so it a double hit, less tonnage and lower price per tonne (but your production cost have risen as you more water!!! at the right part of the process). It appears the bigger the entity the more entitle they feel to screw the grower's. Hugh outlays to grow (and replant) what they want but they still hold the whip hand during vintage where you are counting on being paid x and it becomes x(-).