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Improving wine/spirits in your own kitchen


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7 replies to this topic

#1 martinlersch

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Posted 15 February 2005 - 02:54 AM

In the circles of molecular gastronomy there has been talk about adding vanilla extract to wines/spirits to improve taste. The reasoning goes like this: when wine or spirits are aged in oak barrels some of the lignin (the "binder" in wood) is washed out into the liquid. The chemical structure of lignin is very similar to that of vanillin (and ethyl vanillin) and it is likely that lignin is chemically transformed to vanillin/ethylvanillin giving the vanilla notes in oak aged wines/spirites. The question then is - why not add a small amount of vanilla extract to wine/spirit to mimic some of the "aged" taste. A suitable amount would perhaps be 1-4 drops of vanilla extract for a bottle of wine (ie. you should not be able to actually taste/smell the vanilla - and you certainly have to shake the bottle well to ensure complete mixing). This will not mimic the complexity of a good bottle of well aged wine, but perhaps it will improve a cheap bottle?

Has anyone tried this?
What wines would be suitable for this experiment?

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Martin

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#2 endless autumn

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Posted 15 February 2005 - 09:37 AM

Why stop there?

There are already hideous fruit-flavoured wines on the market and South African winemakers have been shown up for adding artificial flavourings to their Sauvignon Blanc to make it more Sauvignon-blanc-y.

I think this question falls into the same category as blending wines at home: something which theoretically might make inferior bottles marginally better but will never have such a dramatic effect as to be worth the bottles you ruin.

In any case, the taste of oak is hardly an improving factor in all wines and is certainly not the main point of ageing. (A Mosel riesling would be murdered if you were to add vanilla extract: the taste which would result would in no way resemble that of an aged riesling.)

Keep the vanilla extract for your cakes.

#3 Rebel Rose

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Posted 15 February 2005 - 10:50 AM

Welcome to eGullet, Martin, and thank you for joining us! Your website is interesting.

I'm afraid I have to agree with endless, however. There are cheap wines that are very, very good and would be ruined by tinkering--and there are horrid wines which simply cannot not be improved.

I'm sure the concept is the same with food. Once the dish is finished, a careless and unplanned addition, however small, will ruin a dish that has been thoughtfully produced, just as a small addition of any component cannot possibly rescue the vinous equivalent of burnt macaroni and cheese.

And yes, wine producers, notably in South Africa and Australia but also elsewhere, do occasionally resort to essences, additives, and even oak dust. But fine winemakers take the same approach as fine chefs--they like real ingredients. So if you still want to try your experiment, I suggest using a vanilla bean instead of vanilla essence.

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#4 Carolyn Tillie

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Posted 15 February 2005 - 10:57 AM

I gotta go along with Mary on this one... I'm sitting here, quite baffled. WHY in the world would anyone tinker with wine? If a wine maker has done their job well, nothing would need to be added to a wine.

And I guess I belong to the snob aspect of -- why bother with a cheap bottle in the first place? It goes beyond trying to fix an inferior bottle. A simple drop or two of vanilla is hardly going to give depth, balance, or finesse.

I just don't get it...

#5 britcook

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Posted 21 February 2005 - 06:39 AM

I think the other respondents may have been a little harsh, Martin is not suggesting making a vanilla wine, nor trying to save an irredeemably bad wine. There is a huge amount of "jug" wine out there which is well made, in the sense that it has no faults, but it lacks complexity or depth. The judicious addition of a drop or two of vanilla, enough to have an effect but not enough to affect the taste may actually work, say like adding a grind or two of pepper to strawberries, you can't taste the pepper but it does improve the taste. I don't think there's any question of trying to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear, but those vanilla molecules may just affect the taste buds just enough to give a noticeable improvement.

#6 MaxH

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Posted 21 February 2005 - 07:33 AM

You can also try microwaving wines. An international news story several years ago described a "breakthrough" in China whereby the normal aging process was accelerated by exposing wines to radio or microwave energy. (I haven't heard anything about it since.)

#7 Rebel Rose

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Posted 21 February 2005 - 10:01 AM

I think the other respondents may have been a little harsh, Martin is not suggesting making a vanilla wine, nor trying to save an irredeemably bad wine. There is a huge amount of "jug" wine out there which is well made, in the sense that it has no faults, but it lacks complexity or depth. The judicious addition of a drop or two of vanilla, enough to have an effect but not enough to affect the taste may actually work, say like adding a grind or two of pepper to strawberries, you can't taste the pepper but it does improve the taste. I don't think there's any question of trying to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear, but those vanilla molecules may just affect the taste buds just enough to give a noticeable improvement.

That's a good explanation, and it would be an interesting experiment. If we haven't frightened Martin off forever, perhaps he'll try it and let us know what his perceptions are before and after.

You can also try microwaving wines.  An international news story several years ago described a "breakthrough" in China whereby the normal aging process was accelerated by exposing wines to radio or microwave energy.  (I haven't heard anything about it since.)

Probably because they blew themselves up.

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#8 martinlersch

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Posted 16 March 2005 - 06:40 AM

Hello again and thank you for your replies. Nope! You haven't frightened me away from the forum, but I'm sorry for my delayed response. There's a couple of things I would like to comment on:

I note that most are sceptical to adding anything to their wine, but I'm kind of surprised that wine is regarded as something holy and unchangeable. Perhaps the reason is the lack of success if people have tried to add things to their wine. And of course people do not want to "question" competent wine makers. But as britcook pointed out, I do not suggest you to take you best bottle of wine and start to add different chemicals to it. Of course the question is: is it possible to improve wine (in ways that are not "allowed" for a wine maker to use) by addition of flavours that would be formed naturally in wine/spirits that are aged in wood?

From the little I know about winemaking it is clear to me that a number of chemicals and additives are used in the process of making wine. And this is not always regarded as "cheating". Clarifying wine for example is quite accepted, and I guess it would be naive to think that this does not change the taste, aroma and appearance of wine. Accelrated maturing by using oak chips is another example.

Even though this is a wine forum (I didn't want to cross post, although I perhaps should have done so), I explicitly wrote wine/spirits. The much higher alcohol content of brandy/whiskey/aquavit might change things somewhat. Firstly, when these spirits are aged in wood, the higher alcohol content will extract more chemical substances out of the wood than wine would do. Secondly the higher alcohol content also changes the mouth feel, smell, aftertaste etc. I note that all the comments in the discussion so far have been on adding things to wine. Do you think it would be easier to improve spirits?

Rebel Rose compares with food, writing that "Once the dish is finished, a careless and unplanned addition, however small, will ruin a dish that has been thoughtfully produced". I agree, but the addition of salt, pepper, parmesan, chutney etc. after food has been served is a planned addition and can often improve taste. I believe the same thing can be true for wine/spirits. Addition of vanilla is not at all a random addition. It's a carefull, planned action to mimic some of the procecess that naturally occur in the aging of wine/spirits.

In a more general perspective I wonder whether there is a fear the "synthetic" or "chemical" as opposed to the "natural". Take the various "wine scandals". Here wine makers add various substances to improve the wine. This is normally not detected until a chemical analysis is done. Once this becomes known the public opinion of the wine changes from "ok" to "disagreable". But as long as long as people didn't know, they thought the wine tasted better. I totally agree that it should not be allowed for wine produces to add all sorts of chemicals to their wine. Yet it is a fact that in some cases addition of chemicals, before or after fermentation, has improved wine. Any comments on this?

I think I'll leave it there and look forward to reading your comments!

Martin Lersch, PhD
Chemist and food enthusiast

Visit Khymos, a blog dedicated to molecular gastronomy and popular food science.

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