This is a story about a company called ConeTech and its founder, Mr. Anthony Dann. What ConeTech does is adjust the alcohol level in wine without compromising aromas and taste. But, let me take a step back; please bear with me because I am a fan of "adjusting alcohol levels in wine" in an effort to make wine more enjoyable and easy on the palate.
Are the alcohol levels in wine getting a little out of hand, especially when we realize it is possible for wine alcohol content to be 16%? Is a 16% alcohol level giving the wine consumer value? Most people like the flavors in wine that enhance the enjoyment of a meal; but are 16% over the top? Others say they just want a balance of aromas and taste profiles in a wine. Many of us simply enjoy a glass of wine by itself as a time to enjoy flavors and aromas. Well, if you generally agree with the above then you are probably becoming more aware of what high alcohol levels are doing to impact your enjoyment of wine.
I started drinking wine in the 1960's while in college. At that time I distinctly remember the alcohol in wine was about 11% and with pizza it was wonderful. Fast forward to today. At a recent wine tasting I noticed that a lot of the reds being poured were labeled at 15% alcohol. By legal standards that means alcohol content could be as high as 16.5% and still be within label requirements. Therefore, over a 25 year period alcohol content in U.S. wine has increased approximately 40%. European winemakers are also right up there with U.S. winemakers relative to alcohol in wine.
So the question now is: What has precipitated winemakers to make wine with high levels of alcohol? There appear to be three reasons. First, climate change in wine growing regions, especially in California, has changed the harvest. Then, as temperatures rise, the chemical process that takes place on the vines brings on higher sugar levels in the fruit. And, it is the yeast working on the sugars that bring on higher alcohol. Related to this first point which now brings us to the second point; fruit that stays on the vine also intensifies flavors and tannins. This helps eliminate the green flavors in underdeveloped fruit. Lastly, ultimately the wine is in the hands of God and the winemaker. It is the winemaker that selects the yeast profiles, fermentation and the blends. Yeast is becoming a bigger factor as yeast manufacturers do more and more research on yeasts and their idiosyncrasies in winemaking.
A winemaker friend reminds me that higher alcohol wine gives more intense flavors/full body. Further, reducing alcohol levels then forces a winemaker to do a delicate balancing act. The ultimate goal is maintaining the chemistry profiles/taste consistency of their wines from season to season so their customers can rely on the wine qualities and characteristics.
Remember, like most things in life that are man-made; it is a balancing act between compromises. Without alcohol there is no wine. Laura Gray wrote in 2011, "Alcohol affects the taste, texture and structure of a wine. If there is enough of everything else i.e. if the wine is balanced, then the alcohol level may not be evident to the person drinking. A certain level of alcohol is necessary to sustain a serious wine with a long cellar life ahead of it."
Personally I do not like high levels of alcohol. Here's why:
- Ethanol can mask aromas and taste of wine; it becomes a hot wine.
- I am limited by how much I can consume as a matter of civility and coherent speech.
- A 'hot' wine with a meal can distort the taste of food.
- High alcohol can accentuate the sense of sweetness in wine-I do not like sweetness.
We have seen alcohol content in wine increase. That isn't a bad thing if kept in balance and not in excess. But what happens if wine achieves a high alcohol level naturally or it is anticipated to come-in with a high brix level, then how can it be adjusted? Legally, there seems to be three processes; two mechanical processes and two natural. The natural processes involve vineyard management procedures and tweaking fermentation with different yeasts that feed on the sugars.
The mechanical processes involve two technologies: spinning cone and reverse osmosis. Reverse osmosis we are generally familiar with because many homes use the process to remove certain chemicals and minerals from drinking water. The other, somewhat newer technology is spinning cone.
I recently was meeting with a friend in the cork industry in Santa Rosa and we got into a discussion about 'hot' wines. He commented that a friend of his worked in the lab at a large premium winery and noted that from time to time tasting really high alcohol wines fried sensory perceptions of the wine. He then mentioned Mr. Tony Dann and his work in founding a company (ConeTech) in Santa Rosa that used a 20 year old technology developed in Australia that adjusts alcohol in wine.
I was intrigued that anyone would dare perform a delicate operation on a living thing as precious as wine. One afternoon this thought was verbalized upon meeting Tony Dann for the first time, I could tell he was a bit tweaked by my bringing so much ignorance to the conversation. "Depending on the fermented wine we receive, what the winemaker wants to achieve, and the winery's historic brand profile; sometimes technological intervention is appropriate if it in no way injures the integrity of the wine," said Mr. Dann. "What we give our customers is: absolute confidentiality, our respect in approaching the winemakers' original creative objectives, the finest process known, and an expertise that is as much about winemaking as about technology. Simply put, we don't mess around with the serious business of wine."
Mr. Dann's company, ConeTech, pioneered the process of alcohol adjustment in wine using a version of the Australian technology known as the Spinning Cone Column. Today this technology serves approximately 600 wineries. "Basically, this is a process of spinning a thin film of wine across cones and capturing first all the delicate volatile aromas and then the alcohol vapors at the top of a vacuum chamber. Through precise calibrations we can regulate exactly the amount of alcohol removed from any wine," said Dann. We can exactly match the chemical profile of the pre-adjusted wine delivered to us and the wine returned to the winery." Tests have proven that there is no difference in chemistry, aromas and taste of the wine after treatment - except, of course, for the alcohol factor.
What is also amazing is that after the wine is initially split into separate reactions (volatile aromas, alcohol, and the body of the wine) you could if you wished simply recombine them - and wind up with exactly the same product as before. No other technology can claim that. Another feature is that only a small portion of the total winery's blend/batch needs to be adjusted. The adjusted portion, which may only be 5% to the total wine produced, is then blended back into the total volume. Oxygen never enters the process. Purity of what is rendered back to the winery is guaranteed by "fingerprinting" the wine delivered and "fingerprinting" the wine returned to the customer.
But first, the process starts with ConeTech's own enologists working with the winemaker to agree on the "sweet spot" which the winemaker wants to achieve with his wine. The "sweet spot" is that optimum level of alcohol that brings the wine into a harmonious balance of all its key components.
The cost to a winery is approximately $1.35 per gallon of wine actually processed. This might mean ConeTech processing as little as 5-10% of the total original batch of wine. In the final analysis that may impact the price of a bottle of wine only $0.10 across all bottles produced with a final alcohol level of 13%. When you consider a spinning cone plant and its infrastructure can cost upwards of $2 million, which is reasonable.
"If a winery delivered 10,000 gallons of fermented juice we could process that quantity to a pre-determined alcohol content in about 24 hours," said Dann.
Dann's parting words were: "The U.S. consumer keeps telling researchers, they want consistent wine produced by their favorite brands and they want wine with good aromas and taste that won't burn the palate. We help wine marketers keep that promise to their consumers."
"We have 20 years of successful operation in California and now have subsidiary operations in Chile, Spain, and South Africa. If our technology did not help our clients achieve market success with their wines we would be out of business. Wine people are tough and demanding because each year they only have one chance to get it right; we have the same constraints," said Tony Dann.
Tony Dann is an Englishman with extensive international consumer marketing experience. It was after getting into the wine marketing business that he came across the spinning cone technology and immediately recognized what the technology could offer the wine industry. As he said in conclusion: "wine is something above all made to be enjoyed, by the largest possible number of people. It needs to taste delicious and made "accessible to the palate. We're happy to contribute to that."