Making The Case For Slow Wines

Editor's note: No, we're not making a case for the 1993 Tony! Toni! Tone! jam "Slow Wine"—but check back in a couple weeks for that.

Unlike Cocoa Puffs and Lean Cuisine dinners, a bottle of wine does not list the ingredients on the label. Ingredients, you say? Isn't wine just made from grape juice? Well, yes. And no. So, what the heck else could be in there?

Recently, I tasted a wine with wonderful structure, generally the result of careful aging. The winemaker admitted – candidly, to his credit – that, in fact, the effect was achieved by sprinkling powdered tannin into the wine. It's a common practice winemakers use to mimic time spent in a barrel, though not as common as stirring oak chips or barrel staves into a wine so that it picks up the flavors and tannins imparted by oak.

There are hundreds more additives and processes regularly used to achieve the flavors and textures we have come to expect from wine (or to achieve them more quickly). These include coloring agents, cultured yeasts, various isolated enzymes, as well as machines that introduce oxygen to soften a wine or extract more concentration from grapes by reverse osmosis. Never mind all the herbicides and pesticides habitually used in the vineyards. These modern techniques have become standard practice. Making wine is not only tricky, but it takes time and time, in winemaking as in any business, is money. Cutting corners and quick-fixing flaws can be integral to the bottom line. And yet, not all wine is made this way.

At the risk of oversimplifying the issue, not all food is made with MSG, either, even though it makes food taste awesome. So do a number of other additives and processes commonly used in the food industry. In this era of concern over the provenance of our food, a growing number of people are seeking out foods made simply and slowly. They even have their own movement.

The Slow Food movement began 25 years ago in Italy as a response to, among other things, plans for a McDonald's near the Spanish Steps in Rome. The movement has since grown in into a global organization, accruing such supporters as Alice Waters and Michael Pollan. Its mission embraces local, sustainable farming and home cooking, and warns about the dangers of the industrial food chain. But what about the drink chain?

Most wine in the U.S. is sold for less than $10 a bottle. And much of that is sold by companies who have bought bulk wine and reworked it (using some of the techniques mentioned earlier), before bottling and selling it under their brand. You might think that buying wine labeled local or organic is a safe, easy option. The problem with this strategy is that even wines grown with organic grapes can be put through rigorous processing. And, now that every state makes wine, regardless of how ideal the conditions may or may not be, chemical tinkering with grape juice is often required to make a decent product.

Slow Wine 2012 is the Slow Food association's first English-language wine guide and purports to be the first wine guide to shed light on how wine is made and why this is important. (Unfortunately, it only lists offerings from 400 wineries in Italy.) While it doesn't go into specifics about additives and processes used, it does offer a summary on the general philosophy of the winemaker and a primer on how the grapes were grown and fermented. Theoretically, all the wines featured, especially those tagged with the snail icon, are made "slowly" — as in, with minimal manipulation by the vintner.

The guide's editors, Giancarlo Gariglio and Fabio Giavedoni, say they would like to see guides written for France, Germany, the U.S. and other wine-producing regions. The undertaking involves not only tasting the wines, but inspecting each winery's facilities for sustainability, sensitivity to terroir, and overall "slowness" of the winemaking. As information about the conventional wine industry spreads, much like information about the industrial food chain has, more people may seek out slow wine. Labels listing ingredients and precise processes probably are not in the cards, but hopefully a little more transparency with regard to modern winemaking is. At the very least, the powder sprinkled in your favorite red shouldn't have to be such a dirty little secret.