Wine column no. 57: All wines are equal, but some wines are more equal than others

Sept. 7, 2014: There’s no better way to fuse art and science than with metaphor. As a bridge, it connects what can’t seem to meet, and when conflict is afoot, it’s honesty, hidden by a veil.

Metaphor, after all, is cunning, when it wants to be; well placed, when it needs to be; and hasty, when it appears there’s no other option. It’s the deliberate jab in a crowded, leering room, or the even tone that traverses borders, speaking, carefully, to two opposing audiences at the same time.

Wine can be just as effective. Merely a glass of alcohol to some, to others, it’s wit’s right-hand man, or arrogance’s Achilles’ heel. It can look like Cupid’s arrow, or merely steady the hand that yearns for it. It loosens lips and lightens pocketbooks, both eases and magnifies tensions. It can be used to shield and slice, confound and clarify, honor and defy.

So what is this substance that science gives us to sniff, taste and feel? The U.S. Government Printing Office defines wine by the process used to make it. Fermentation of grapes plus aging plus bottling, then, offers us what the Printing Office also says must be within a range of 7 to 24 percent of alcohol by volume.

The most popular wines — Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and the rest of that motley crew — contain roughly 12 to 16 percent alcohol.

Port, Sherry, and Madeira are the chiseled fixtures, clocking in at somewhere between 17 and 21 percent alcohol. They are so deftly fortified that, year after year, the very same bottles can bring stature to even the most unacclaimed shelf.

Then there are the Moscato d’Astis. At somewhere between 5 to 6.5 percent, they don’t even register on the government’s scale. I’ll shunt them into the “wine is defined by the process used to make it” category.

Finally, we arrive at dealcoholized wines. They contain less than one-half of a percent of alcohol and are perfect for those who don’t like or can’t abide the effects of fermented grapes. Something to sip at a party or at a dinner table, they’re the innocuous disguise, the mask that allows you to blend in without being conspicuously contrary.

The 2011 Fre Premium Red alcohol-removed wine has a convincing crimson color and a cherry nose and flavor. This substance, which sells for $7.99 at Winetree East, is tart yet sweet, smooth and substantial, an easy, harmless pour into your glass. Yet as disguises go, it’s not the wine that I find most fascinating. It’s the marketing.

Fre is proud to throw away what certain circles believe makes other wines so valuable. Instead of embracing alcohol, Fre touts its lack of it; instead of highlighting the talent of the winemaker, it flaunts mechanics. In short, what most regard as gold, as artistry, it tosses off as mere gold dust, as routine. It does everything it can to look, taste and smell like real wine and yet not be real at all.

Here’s how companies like these use science to place their products on the shelf. One involves a messenger. The other requires a spin machine. Since both processes are applied within the complicated worlds of biology, chemistry and (in the case of the messenger) medicine, I’ll eat this elephant one bite at a time.

The first method extracts alcohol using reverse osmosis and replaces it with water.
Have I lost you? OK, I’ll return to metaphor. Basically, osmosis is chemistry’s version of a trade, of an exchange of information. If osmosis allows a substance to move from point A to point B, then reverse osmosis allows a substance to move from point B to point A. This transfer can’t happen on its own. For osmosis to work, it needs a semi-permeable membrane. This is something that allows certain things to come in (or out) while keeping other things out (or in). The membrane is a messenger that enables and encourages an organized collection of leaks.

The second method feeds the wine into the top of a spinning cone column. This dizzyingly rapid, repetitive cycle is so effective it transforms the liquid into a thin film. Nitrogen gas extracts the wine’s delicate aromas and flavors. The remaining liquid is shoved through the spinning cone column once again, this time at a higher temperature. This removes the alcohol. It’s at this point, from what I understand, that everything comes together. Once it’s been spun, dismantled, spun again, and then separated from what made it wine in the first place, the flavors and aroma essences are recombined with the dealcoholized wine and unfermented varietal grape juice.

I have nothing against dealcoholized wine. However, it sure does seem like a long, convoluted process to create what is essentially grape juice.

But that’s how Fre likes it. After all, alcohol isn’t its disguise; honesty is. And sometimes that’s the best veil of all.

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