Friday, January 20, 2012

Fungicide residue makes white wines sweeter

Wineries hoping to seduce drinkers with a sweet tooth have it easy: They can blast their grapes with fungicide, and apparently that will not only simplify farming, but might help sell the wine.

Five Spanish scientists published a study last summer that might have gone unnoticed if not for the Academic Wino, aka Becca Yeamans, who posted it on her blog yesterday.

I'll cut to the chase: White wines with higher levels of fungicide residue may taste sweeter and have more tropical fruit, apricot and floral aromas.

Wow. Talk about a reason to try to teach yourself to like drier, less fruity wines.

While the study has major flaws, notably that it has not been replicated, it's still a study I wish I'd never seen, but I can't unsee it now. I'll wonder from now on, when I smell tropical fruit aromas in Chardonnay, if I'm really smelling fungicide. And thanks, Spanish scientists, for spoiling floral aromas in white wine for me forever.

The scary thing about this study is that there's almost no good news for organic or biodynamic grape growers, nor even for low-fungicide growers trying to grow sustainably. It's as if a panel of sommeliers came out with a blanket endorsement for Monsanto.

Of course, the actual seven wine experts who sensorily evaluated the wines in the experiment said nothing of this sort. But they're European; they have European palates. They associated quality with dryness. They would be appalled by a random selection of $10 mass-market wines on this side of the Atlantic.

To be fair, the connoisseurs' market doesn't prize sweetness or tropical fruit flavors in white wines. But connoisseurs, who make up maybe 80% of wine bloggers and at least 50% of wine blog readers, probably make up something like 15% of the US market, if that. There are probably 3,000 bottles sold of $9 Menage a Trois white for every one of artisanal dry Ribolla Gialla.

Put yourself in the position of a California grower, especially after the last two very wet vintages, where mildew was a constant threat. Are you going to painstakingly follow organic or biodynamic practices? Or are you going to dust your crops 'til they look like white-trash Christmas trees, as that would be safer for your bottom line? Moreover, you can flock those vines with that poison and still get certified sustainable.

Sigh. Consider it a call to action to support wines that are grown from organically or biodynamically farmed grapes. Or, just learn to love the apparently sweet, floral, fruity flavors enhanced by fungicide.

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Becca @ The Academic Wino said...

Thanks for linking to my post, Blake!

Though, I am sorry I've scarred your enjoyment of fruity white wines for life....

I guess one thing that we can still hold out hope for is that maybe this was just a one time result. In the study, they didn't really have any replication, so we can't be totally sure the results are can only hope... :/

As far as alternatives to these fungicides, there is some work being done looking for alternatives that are more "organic" (not to promote my blog too much, but here's a link to an example: )

The only thing about that study, is that they didn't do any sensory trials, so who knows how those treatments would affect the flavor of wine.

Thanks again for including me in the post!

Anonymous said...

Mr Gray,

I have enjoyed reading your blog over the past year. I understand your fear over the potential abuse of fungicides by unscrupulous growers, seeking to improve their bottom line regardless of the health of consumers and the environment.

However, I am disappointed that you single out certified sustainable growers (or any responsible grower), many of whom (though not necessarily all) carefully follow IPM programs, minimize pesticides, and are very careful to provide a safe product for the consumer and the environment.

While I appreciate organic growers and it is my OPINION that they can produce a safer, more environmentally friendly product, I must point out that they also use fungicides.

Unfortunately, not all organic fungicides are inocuous, and some could technically be described as (organically certified) "poison," with the potential for damage to the environment and human health.

Just saying that being "organic" (perhaps even biodynamic) is not everything - there is still room for improvement.

Warren said...

White trash? Is that really what you want to write? What kind of people deserve to be called trash?

Jamie Goode said...

Blake, I think it's a HUGE leap to suggest that growers using systemic fungicides have fruitier or more tropical-tasting wines.
This study was a poor one, IMHO - there's such a thing as exclusion periods (you can't spray 3 days before harvest) - there were just so many variables involved here with multiple fungicides and residues above legal limits, that it's really a big stretch to conclude anything from it. You've done some heroic extrapolation in your blog post. Organic growers can rest easy.

SUAMW said...

Blake, I figured you'd have more insight on the "tropical fruit aromas in Chardonnay" after that sensory analysis seminar at Tolosa last year. ;)

I am not sure all "European Palates" may have a preference for subtlety, and dryness. Have ya tasted any of the sea of off-dry Saperavis, 6 puttonyos Tokajs, or Sovetskoye Shampanskoye?....

W. Blake Gray said...

Jamie: It's true, it's not a great study for the reasons you and Becca point out. But I remember an old news editor telling me, "You can exercise your discretion on good news stories, but you can't use your political beliefs to exclude stories that don't fit." I certainly wish the study hadn't reached those conclusions, but they are worth reporting.

Anon: I'm not singling out certified sustainable growers. I'm merely continuing to point out how low the bar is for certified sustainability in California. Read the linked post.

Here is a promise: the day that the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance adds some actual standards that protect consumers instead of its winery and vineyard clients, I will celebrate them in detail on this blog.

Warren: The white-trashy kind.

Dan K said...

First off, the study appears to be scientifically worthless. I can tell you that fungicides protect the inherent fruitiness of white wines from fungal degradation and allows for longer hang time and increased ripeness levels. The result is fruitier wines with higher alcohol levels. Alcohol, of course, is the main contributor to impressions of sweetness in wines. To make some conclusion suggesting organic/biodynamic will taste less sweet is more alcohol level related than some far fetched conclusion based on bad research. (although attention getting.) Regards, Dan K

Anonymous said...

These wines will have to be accompanied by MSDS sheets like the fungicides themselves. Great

W. Blake Gray said...

Dan K: Beg to differ with you on one point: Isn't RS the main contributor to impressions of sweetness?

Attention-getting. Ah yes. I remember when I started working at newspapers, people who didn't like the tone of a story would say -- accusatorily -- "You're just trying to sell papers." Like that was a bad thing.

Dan K said...

Hey blake. By definition RS is sweetness. Alcohol is an impression of sweetness. Regards, Dan