An encounter with a high-pressure salesman left Christine Austin with a bad taste in her mouth

I had a really strange encounter at a Food and Drink fair last summer.   A representative from a fairly well-known company tried to get me to sign up for a tasting at home where essentially he would attempt to sell me wine. I was travelling incognito at the time, so I expressed interest and listened to his pitch.

Apparently his wines were the only ones that were actually made from grapes! Everyone else made products adulterated with fruit juice from various sources, a whole bucket full of chemicals, then shipped around the world in plastic bags, adulterated yet again in the bottling plant and then sold at inflated prices. What was truly sad about this encounter was that this salesman had been selling cars until a few months prior to my encounter. Now with a portfolio of wines to push he knew nothing about the product, and even when I told him that I knew a little about wine, he refused to listen. He had his speech in his head and he spread his story to as many people as he could.

I have no idea how many people submitted to his pressure sales technique and who now believe that his products (overpriced French wine, bottled in Germany) are the only wholesome wines available but I thought it worthwhile setting out what wine is actually made from and how it gets from vine to shelf.

What is wine made from?

Grapes. It sounds obvious, but you can’t grow a few rows of blackcurrants, plums, pea pods or anything else to put into your wine. My error-prone salesman suggested that all supermarket wines were made with help from apple and pear juice. This is totally wrong. I have seen grapes come in to wineries around the world. Not an apple in sight, apart from in the workers’ lunch boxes.

What is wine made from? Just grapes

Where can the grapes come from?

Literally anywhere. If you can grow grapes then you can make wine from them. What you can’t do is grow them in, for example, Africa and ship them off to another country, say, France, and call it French wine. Depending on the region and its local legislation, there are strict limits on what you can do with your grapes. In Australia you can truck a lorry-load of grapes from Clare to Barossa because you probably have your winery in Barossa, but if you try to take your Languedoc grapes into Meursault your lorry and its load will be seized. Once the grapes have arrived at a winery and have been pressed into juice then the paperwork acts like a passport and all juice and wine is tracked and has to be accounted for.

What can you spray on your vines?

Farming is difficult. There are always weeds, bugs and pests that want to set up home in your fields or eat the shoots and fruit of whatever you want to grow. As you get rid of one, another moves in, so the last 30 years has seen a transformation in vineyard practices. Sustainable, organic and biodynamic are not just words, they are sets of vineyard management rules which limit what you can spray on your vines. Beneficial insects are encouraged by planting wild flowers between the rows. These insects eliminate the bad ones. Some vineyards let geese roam in the vineyards to eat pests while others let small sheep graze in vineyards to eat the weeds. Big sheep would eat the grapes which is not a good idea.

Almost all vineyards, even the organic ones use a copper and sulphur based spray although organic producers reduce this to absolute minimal limits. Biodynamic producers spend hours mixing up nettle-soups and other natural sprays.

Picking the grapes

It would be wonderful to think that grapes are harvested by a happy band of singing locals who then take off their shoes and socks, squash the grapes with their feet and allow the juice to ferment into wine. That doesn’t happen.

Some producers pick by hand, which means that you need a team of pickers waiting for the day of absolute ripeness. They may start in the early morning when the fruit is cool, but during the day the grapes will warm up before they get to the winery. Alternatively you can hire a machine to go through a vineyard in the cool of the night, pick the grapes at optimum ripeness, and get them to the winery in time for the first shift of the day. Picking the grapes by hand looks nice, but in Europe it costs twice as much as machine picking. Low-cost regions such as South Africa and South America keep to hand picking because employment is vital.

Additives in winemaking

Do you eat dried apricots or maybe buy a ready-made fruit salad for your lunch? If you do, please can you stop complaining about sulphur in wine? E220 is sulphur dioxide, a chemical widely used in food preservation. You will find it in your dilutable fruit squash and quite a lot of fruit-based drinks. It stops apples going brown and it does the same thing with grapes. It also stops yeasts and bugs growing so is often added just before bottling. Even organic wines have some sulphur in them, at reduced levels.  Even with no added sulphur there will be sulphur in your wine, produced by the fermentation process all on its own.

Does it cause headaches? Probably not. There are many different compounds in wine, most of them naturally occurring that could cause headaches. Red wine seems to cause more headaches than whites, so you might have a reaction to polyphenols or histamines.

Sulphur levels in wine have been reducing steadily for the last 30 years.

Acidity

If you grow your grapes in a hot climate you may not have enough acidity and if you grow your grapes in a cool climate you may have too much. So winemakers in cool climates chill their wines to precipitate excess tartaric acid, then dry it and sell it to winemakers in warm climates who add it to theirs.

The mis-informed salesman told me that hydrochloric acid was used in supermarket wine – no, it isn’t. Acidity is measured by the concentration of hydrogen ions. I think he got his words mixed up.

Beware of the salesman

Everyone gets nervous when buying wine. It is an expensive item on the shopping list and so is a serious decision. What is totally unacceptable is the scare tactics used by a former car salesman to cause suspicion about wine in general. If anyone has seen that salesman, please give him a copy of this article.

 

About The Author

Christine Austin

Christine is a wine writer, broadcaster and a wine judge for several international wine competitions. She has a technical background and spent five years as a buyer for a major supermarket before moving to wine writing.She writes for The Yorkshire Post Magazine and organises the York Festival of Food and Drink. She has won both the Lanson and the Roederer prizes for wine writing.

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