Doctored Wine: A Brief History

doctored wineIf they are so inclined, and many are, winemakers today have thousands of products they can use to correct flaws or dial in a particular flavor profile they’re seeking in order to please the marketing department. Mega purple to doctor the color, commercial yeasts that will speed fermentation or bring out particular flavors, oak products to save the time and cost of lengthy barrel ageing, powdered tannins to soften the mouthfeel not to mention acidifiers, de-acidifiers and the many enzymes that are used to catalyze various steps in the winemaking process. ( Here is a list of additives that can legally be used in wine. Gusmer’s most recent catalog is 75 pages long.)

For large, commercial wineries this is how they put a drinkable wine on the supermarket shelf for $6 that tastes the same year after year.

It would be natural to conclude that this is just part of the brave, new world of mass marketed, industrial product. But this practice of doctoring wine is controversial and many winemakers want no part of it; many artisan winemakers boast of making wine the old fashioned way with minimal interventions and only a little sulfur dioxide used as a preservative.

But it turns out the old fashioned way of making wine looks a lot like modern industrial winemaking.

Bertrand Celce at his site Wine Terroirs has helpfully translated part of an 18th Century French book on winemaking that includes some remarkable passages.

The Romans prepared their wines this way : when stomping their grapes they’d poure the flowing juice and must into a wooden, circled fermenter, then after it had fermented the right time [obviously on wild yeast] they’d put the juice in barrels where it would keep fermenting, adding then [take a seat] sulfur, plaster, lime, or chalk, or dessicated sand (?!), or marble dust, or dry salt, or resin, ot new-wine lees, or raisins, or sea water, or myrrh, or aromatic herbs or other similar substances of the same kind, in volumes they judged fit, every country having its own recipe which Romans called conditura vinorum.

Lovely. Should you think this was peculiar to the Romans, here is a passage describing 18th Century methods of removing sediment:

Take half a pound of fish glue, put it a mug of French wine, the most austere you can find, so that the wine floats above the glue. Let the whole thing macerate for 24 hours, then torn the fish glue into pieces, beat it and add more wine; & after four days we get some sort of jelly; as the jelly is still thick you add some more wine and when it gets the needed fluidity you take a pint volume [about a quart according to this old French measures’ page] the practice used by the Germans & the English for 252 pints of wine, and so on in proportion. You take 12 or 16 pints with which you mix the aforementioned volume of jelly; then you put the mix in the vessel & you beat it thoroughly with a stick until the liquor reaches the closure of the barrel, which will not fail to happen if the wine is good. Note that for French wines the vessel must be sealed tightly, which you have to avoid for Spanish wines. Fish glue pushes the sediments at the surface on strong wines, but i a matter of a week it precipitates it to the bottom.

The more things change ….


  1. If you haven’t already, you need to read French Wine: A History by Rod Phillips. Among the wealth of facts he presents, such as the ancient Roman techniques, he mentions that a popular practice in 18th-19th century France was to “plaster” wines by adding plaster components like gypsum, to enhance color and acidity. The concept of making “natural” wine certainly is an ancient one, but equally ancient is the practice of doctoring wine. The current practice of additive-free wine really only arose after WWII.

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