With our 2021 wine releases, we’ve elected to publish the details of how they are grown and made, including the additions and processes that we utilize to get them from grapes to bottle.
You might have noticed that in the wine world, this is not standard practice.
This works in complete favour of the wine industry. Winemaking, compared to other food processing enjoys almost no labelling regulation. Maybe it’s lobbying. Maybe it’s the established practice not being questioned. Maybe it’s because our inherent assumption is that wine brands are honest and that wine is sophisticated and therefore good. Whatever it is, I think it’s bullshit because it creates vacuums where the information that ends up filling the gaps evolves slowly into unquestioned facts. It creates a market where producers can say whatever they like and never be challenged. Unfortunately, I can’t compel other brands to stop making false claims, but I can control what we do and how we communicate it. So, here are more details on the specs I’ve identified so you understand each in a bit more detail.
Like almost all commercial vineyards, our vineyard is conventionally managed. This means we use systemic chemicals to control pests and diseases. What does systemic mean? It means the chemical is sprayed on and then is absorbed by the plant into its system. Sulphur and copper are not systemic, which is why they are allowed in organic viticulture. This means they are sprayed on and the surface contact is what reduces the disease risk, which means they are considerably less effective, which sometimes means you need a lot more of them. We try to minimise systemic use as much as possible, and we do lots of other good things, but in the end, this is the reality of grape growing in a wet region on a commercial scale. We are trialing organic viticulture in one block but with two years of La Nina rain levels, we are finding that the sulphur and copper washes off too quickly and we have no protection from mould and mildews. Because of this, despite our winemaking approach, we have never identified as ‘natural’ wine producers because I believe wholeheartedly that if a wine brand identifies as natural (by either saying it or using packaging and symbolism to convey it) then the grapes should be certified organic or biodynamic. In my mind, that is the first question I ask when contemplating buying a ‘natural wine’. A can of worms maybe but more on this another time.
Despite sparkling base benefiting from handpicking, overall, machine harvest is the future. The technology in the new harvesters is incredible. Additionally, handpicking costs have gone through the roof, and because the labour market is so broken, we still don’t even know if the actual people doing the work are being paid correctly by the contractors. If we request evidence from the contractor, we’re at risk of losing our crew. If we don’t ask, we are complicit in a system that potentially exploits workers. This means we would ideally use local people but sourcing local labour is almost impossible. Again, in controlling the controllables, we are evolving our whole business to reduce handpicking as much as possible and doing our best to work with ethical contractors.
When grapes are pressed, the juice resembles cloudy apple juice. Enzymes help settle out the solids resulting in a clear juice – an ideal starting point for many wines. We don’t use them, not because I have any issues, I just like the texture of wine made with all the solidsy bits. We have used them in the past when we’ve been making wines with potential smoke taint. Settling can be done naturally with lots of time and cooling, so in a way, enzymes might reduce these requirements which is a win on the emissions front.
It is now legal to add water to grape juice. This reduces the sugar, which reduces the final alcohol value, and creates a lighter, often more balanced wine. Because of our cold climate, high sugars are not something we contend with so it’s not something we need but it’s pretty common anecdotally.
Yeast naturally proliferates in winery environments and on healthy grapes. Commercial yeast is a practical alternative that serves the industry well by ensuring complete ferments with typical flavours. Between the vineyard and winery, we seem to have a pretty strong wild yeast population and most of our ferments are complete without any need for yeast addition. However we do use it in the yeast cultures for the sparkling wines as wild yeast would not survive in that environment.
Nutrients feed yeast, so juice that has low nitrogen numbers benefits from nutrient addition. We typically use a combination of organic and non-organic nutrient in our yeast cultures for the second ferment in our sparkling wines (fermenting wine inside a bottle is asking a lot from yeast, so they need all the help they can get) but because we leave the solids in for the table and base wines, they don’t need any addition.
Tannin, acid and/or colour addition
Again, these additives are super common in commercial wine. Citric, tartaric or malic acid is used to bring up acidity and lower the pH. Owing to our cool climate, it’s not something we typically need. Regarding colour and tannin adjustment, there are hundreds of options to add texture, structure, and stabilise pigment. Despite the fact that our site produces grapes that are very low in colour and tannin, I wouldn’t adjust these for the sake of it because I try to make wines representative of the place.
Those little crystals you sometimes see in wine bottles are prevented by a process called cold stabilisation. This involves cooling the wine down to roughly -2 degrees for a few days so the crystals form inside the tank, rather than the bottle. An additive – normally cream of tartar, but sometimes others, can be used to speed up the process. Cold stab requires an enormous amount of energy, and most drinkers I know don’t really mind if the crystals are there, so we don’t do it on the table wines. We do use it on sparkling wines because the bubbles lift the crystals in your glass, which is not ideal.
These products help create nice, clear wine by binding to haze-causing proteins in the wine, and can also be used to reduce bitter compounds. All fining products, whether derived from clay, animal products (fish, milk, egg) or synthetic alternatives all work on the basis of protein-attracting-protein. They are added to wine, mixed, and settled out. For good reasons, allergen-causing fining products must be declared on labels. I don’t mind hazy or cloudy wine so I don’t use any fining products in the table wines, and the sparkling base tends to settle well so we don’t use it in those wines either.
Filtration is a physical process where wine is pumped through various size cartridges to filter out specific size particles. These can be very coarse (colloquially known as ‘bug-catchers’) through to ‘sterile’ which catches most bacteria & yeast particles. This can be useful to stop malolactic fermentation, and prevent re-fermentation in wines that have some sugar left in them (i.e. things like prosecco, MT sparkling and off-dry table wines). We don’t use filtration unless we have to – so our sparkling wines are sterile filtered prior to second ferment (this is to stop malo, and any fermentation from any dosage added after disgorging) but for our table wines has so far been unnecessary.
Malo-culture addition and malolactic estimate
Malo is the conversion of malic acid (super tight & acidic) to lactic acid (much softer) – and it sometimes brings with it some buttery flavours. Typically all red wines go through malo but any buttery character is generally indistinguishable. Malo is useful in ‘lo-fi’ wine production because it generally results in more bottle-stable wine, therefore mitigating the need for filtration and high sulphur. Because of this, if the barrel goes through malo we don’t try and stop it, but at the same time, we don’t add malo bugs either. We just let it go either way. Like our yeast populations, the malo culture in the winery seems pretty robust but quite neutral in flavour, so we don’t see any buttery/diactyl flavours in the final wines. When we state our ‘malo estimate’, this is roughly based on the grams per litre of malic left in the wine compared to the original number as juice.
Sulphur dioxide addition
I think sulphur has suffered unfairly in the wine additive world – perhaps because it’s listed on the label, maybe it’s also the unproven correlation with hangovers. If you’re interested in sulphur, read this brilliant article. Otherwise, my main points are as follows:
- Sulphur is measured in wine in parts per million which is equivalent to mg/L. Legally, most wines must be under 250ppm, or 150ppm if they are certified organic/BD. I have stated before that in my opinion, ‘low’ sulphur is under 30-40ppm, ‘medium’ is under 100 – 120ppm and ‘high’ is above that. Roughly speaking. In France (just as a real-world example), to be an ‘accredited natural wine’, there must be less than 30ppm. And FYI, the phrase ‘minimal sulphur’ might be true but it means absolutely nothing legally.
- All wine produces sulphur naturally during fermentation – apparently, 10ppm is common but it can be higher – so no wine is free of it entirely.
- It’s really, really useful in winemaking at a relatively low concentration. It helps prevent bacterial spoilage and oxidation. You’ll find much higher concentrations in some dried fruit, french fries or some canned foods – which allegedly can contain over 1000ppm.
- The amount added is a philosophical winemaking choice combined with chemistry combined with the potential future of the wine: for example, low pH wines need less sulphur to achieve the same level of protection than high pH wines. If we know the wine will sell quickly, we use less. If we know the wine has a little sugar, we use more.
- It is my personal opinion that there are much bigger issues in the wine industry than sulphur use. I don’t think it’s controversial in the slightest and I think the concern for its use is disproportionate. If you’re concerned from a health perspective, read that Veraison Mag article linked above.
I include this on the specs because it for the wine nerds out there, it shows our site impacts the chemistry of the wines. For reference, low pH is 2.9 – 3.2 and 3.8 upwards is considered relatively high.
We list this as it is of concern to some folks. Often ‘dry’ wine has some unfermentable sugars left behind so we list this as ‘under 2g/L’. In practice, most of our wines are actually 0.6 – 1.2 g/L.
Bottles and closures
The last thing the wine industry wants you to realise is that grape growing, winemaking and the wine supply chain produces its fair share of CO2 emissions. Within this, bottles and freight are the main offenders (I’ll get into chemical & fertiliser manufacturing, fuel, water use, winery cooling and energy, human health, and imported wine supply chain emissions another time), together accounting for 68% of emissions according to this article. While we here at Eminence hash out a plan to get to Net Zero by 2030, this is one of the easy changes: lightweight glass made in Australia is a simple way to reduce emissions when compared to what we have done in the past: buying beautiful, heavy bottles imported from France. This is the norm, by the way. That’s why we’ve listed the weight of the bottles and their origin. The clear Eco bottles we managed to source from NZ are 395g, compared to the dark green bottles we’ve used for the red wines, which are 544 grams. From 2022 onwards we will put all table wines in these lightweight bottles, hopefully sourcing them from an Australian manufacturer this time. Unfortunately, sparkling bottles are impossible because they need strength (therefore weight) to hold the pressure. But they are made locally, so that’s something.
With regard to this, if you’re trying to do your bit to be a conscious consumer (no judgment either way), there are a few ways to make a point: 1) don’t buy imported wine 2) don’t buy wine in heavy bottles 3) explore alternative packaging – cans, bag-in-box and pouches are all the new norm. We need these formats to succeed so we have the incentive to change faster.
Thanks for reading