Gum Arabic, Chilled Reds, and Pinot Noir Advice

Every year before harvest I get a winemaking product catalog from various wine industry suppliers like Laffort, Enartis, and AEB USA, and they have quite the bewildering array of tannins, additives, and all sorts of things they claim will improve your wine. My neighbor has used gum arabic for a couple of years and swears it improves his white and red wines. Could you please tell me a little bit about what it is, how to use it and what it might do for my wines? I typically make Cabernet Sauvignon and a little bit of Chardonnay, all dry, all barrel-aged for at least one year.

Sam Mainard
Elk Grove, California

Here goes some gum arabic info . . . I was first introduced to it at Bonny Doon when Randall Grahm brought it back from one of his jaunts to France, around 1999 or so. We did extensive bench trials with it in many of the Bonny Doon wines, and in some cases chose to add it to reds and whites alike.

Gum arabic was first introduced in France’s wine industry (at least 75 years ago, I believe) as a bid to help improve tartrate stability. Not “another chemical” to add to wine, it’s an entirely natural product that comes from trees! Gum arabic, also known as gum acacia or Arabinol®, is a naturally-occurring large carbohydrate molecule polymer extracted from the sap of two specific species of African Acacia trees: A. senegal and A. seyal. In the case of gum arabic, the polymer is highly branched, consisting of arabinose, rhamnose, and galactose. The long polysaccharides contained in gum arabic products act as colloid protectors, which will prevent and slow down the reactivity of different molecules. It’s been used for centuries in the production of candies, jams, and other foods and beverages. In fact, you can find it in some medieval food and cosmetic recipes!

If you were to go to a winemaking store, you would probably find a product labeled Arabinol®, which is a purified liquid form of gum arabic. When added to wines, it slows down the condensation of the molecules that eventually form tartrate crystals, i.e “wine diamonds,” or those little shards that might look like broken glass in the bottom of your wine bottles. By the way, these crystals are completely harmless, and, even if you imbibe them, they won’t hurt you. Gum arabic and Arabinol® products can also lessen the perception of astringent and bitter tannins. They can be used on whites and reds when there is a need to improve viscosity and mouthfeel. Because Arabinol® contains large polysaccharide molecules, it is quite thick and is perceived as “sweet” on the palate even though it’s technically not a sugar fermentable by wine yeast. This property means that it’s really important to mix your tank or barrels very well after any addition.

With any gum arabic or Arabinol® product, it is very important to run bench trials against other products in order to calibrate dosage and flavor because Arabinol® is not always a positive thing for every wine. In fact, I find that in a lot of wines it simply doesn’t help the wine and can actually detract from certain supporting qualities of the wine.

When added to sparkling wines, Arabinol® improves the finesse of the perlage, or bubbles. In young red wines and rosé wines, it can improve color stability. Specifically on your Cabernet Sauvignon . . . you’d have to do bench trials to see. In some cases gum arabic products might improve mouthfeel, in some cases not. I find it is not a uniform quality-adder, and like residual sugar adjustments, is not linear, i.e. adding more doesn’t always get you “more” positive effect. You have to find the sweet spot with each wine individually. When it works, it can impart a sense of mouthfeel and sweetness and longer finish without adding fermentable sugar. It doesn’t affect the aging of a wine in a positive or negative way.

Results don’t necessarily change from varietal to varietal, i.e. there aren’t some wines where I would say “it never works” or others that it should always be used. It’s just that each type, style, and varietal is different — Arabinol® can add positive things to wines but all-in-all I don’t tend to use it in my winemaking very much. I think it’s a valuable, easy, affordable addition to keep in your winemaker’s toolbox for bench trials, but in reality it’s not one I break out very often.

I always hear that you should chill white wines in the fridge and that red wines should be room temperature. Then I’ve got some buddies that have recently brought over some red wines for dinner which they insist on putting on ice before serving. What’s up with that? Has the “always serve reds at room temperature” rule changed? Are we allowed to chill reds now or is this some kind of a new trend I Missed?

Armina Escalon
Coral Gables, Florida

Though especially welcome in summertime, and especially tasty with regards to Pinot Noir, I break the “room temperature reds rule” year round and with many varietals to boot. In the depths of December you can still find me putting a slight chill on many reds, from a Beaujolais Nouveau at Thanksgiving up to some big and burly Syrahs on Valentine’s Day. I just like my reds served a little cool and find that I prefer around 50–58 °F (10–14 °C) or so, below standard room temperature.

Summertime, however, is when I’m most likely to put a red on ice. Room temperature in our ranch house in Napa doesn’t mean 68 °F (20 °C) like it does in November and as ambient temperatures rise, my tolerance for the more volatile components in red wines (i.e. alcohol, aldehydes, and volatile acidity) goes down. I find it hard to appreciate a red wine when it’s so warm, even a modest 13.8% alcohol red hits me like a ton of grapes.

My solution? Use a tabletop wine cooler, an ice bucket, one of those new stick-it-in-the-bottle gadgets like the one offered by Corkcicle™, or just simply stick the bottle in the fridge for 30 minutes. A slight chill can focus aroma, tame the perception of alcohol, and can make a red seem more refreshing, especially when the weather heats up. I hope you and your friends can come to some compromises . . . there’s nothing wrong with serving your red wines with a slight chill, and contrariwise, there’s nothing wrong with having your whites warm up slightly in the glass as you enjoy them around the table!

I live in Nevada and I’ve been ordering frozen grapes in buckets for the past few harvests from Wine Grapes Direct, mostly Syrah, Zinfandel, and Cabernet. We’ve never tried Pinot Noir, though my wife has really been itching to give it a whirl. We’ve watched the movie Sideways and have also read that Pinot is really hard to grow and make . . . is that true?

Burt Reber
Sparks, Nevada

Pinot Noir has quite a reputation. Often known as the “Heartbreak Grape” and lovingly discussed, dissected, and degustated (is that even a word?) by rabid Pinot-philes the world over, Pinot Noir was being talked about in the wine world well before the movie Sideways thrust it onto an international stage. Many years after Miles and friends brought the joys of Pinot to a wider audience, the tidal wave of Pinot Noir shows no signs of slowing down and I couldn’t be more thrilled. I grew up in California’s Santa Barbara County, spent my first harvest making estate-grown Pinot Noir at the unique Chalone Vineyard, and now make Pinot Noir at Garnet Vineyards. As a dyed-in-the-wool (or in the hair, during harvest) Pinot-freak, I wanted to share with you some quirky factoids and some common misconceptions about my favorite grape.

Pinot Noir: a little fiddly in thevineyard

The tightly-clustered bunches and thin skins always means that Pinot Noir will be a bit more difficult during the growing season. If you’re going to be buying frozen grapes in a pail, you won’t really have to worry about issues the grapes have traveling long distances, and in fact, you may enjoy the “pre-maceration” effect that freezing can have on red grapes. If, however, you are buying fresh grapes from California and transporting them to Nevada, make sure your hauler has a way to keep the grapes chilled, and try, if possible, to transport them in small picking bins or lug boxes to make sure the berries aren’t squished and turned to must by the time they get to you.

Pinot Noir: Not Always “The Heartbreak Grape”

Is Pinot Noir called “The Heartbreak Grape” because it’s so tough to make or because it’s so tough to shell out the ducats for that first growth Burgundy? Seriously, the “tough to deal with” label has been stuck to Pinot Noir throughout the years perhaps because it’s generally a thin-skinned, tightly-clustered varietal, which means it’s susceptible to rot and fungus. Given that Pinot Noir does best in cool, moist climates (like California’s Russian River, Carneros, Monterey County, and Petaluma Gap), it’s logical to see how, especially in wet years, Pinot Noir can get a reputation for being sensitive.

The flip side of this dismal-sounding coin is that Pinot Noir is an early-ripening variety, which means that it tends to get picked before late-season storms can rain on the tasty wine parade. The good news is that not every clone is the same and some have looser, less rot-prone clusters. Even though both 2007 and 2011 were relatively wet years, I found that my vineyards pulled through just fine and were happily fermenting away when things were getting ugly out there. Fortunately I also tend to find that Pinot Noir (unlike some red grapes) behaves very well in the cellar and benefits from minimalist winemaking. No heartbreak there. Though Pinot Noir does take a little extra care and feeding in the vineyard, in the winery I find it responds very well to a classic “hands-off” regimen of time-honored simplicity: Destem, ferment, press, and age.

Pinot Noir: a Large Extended Family

Ever heard of Pinot Blanc, Pinot Meunier or Pinot Grigio? The definitive study has yet to be done on who exactly gave rise to who and when, but what is certain is that the Pinot genome is very changeable. Pinot Noir, with its long (some say over 2,000 years) history in production and suspected gene transposition properties, can spontaneously create different clones and even offspring that are deemed different enough to be classified as different varieties entirely. Though mutations tend to take years to happen, discover, and classify; there are over one hundred different clones of Pinot Noir identified in the winemaking world today. Myself, I like the blending complexity that the different clones planted in different soils and vineyards offer me. Are these genetic shenanigans a good thing or a bad thing? If you like variety and a little unpredictability in your life, it’s great and couldn’t be more fun. I think Pinot drinkers (and Pinot winemakers), who tend to be a curious, quirky bunch anyway, would agree!

Pinot Noir: “the” Versatile Food Wine

There, I said it. Some would say it’s bubbles, some would say it’s the darling-of-the moment, dry rosé, but I plant my food-friendly flag permanently in the world of Pinot Noir. Pinot Noir can be made in so many styles (even Champagne and pink wine!), from light and fruity to dense, dark, and brooding. Salmon is an obvious fish pairing but give blackened catfish, mussels, or halibut a try too. It goes with poultry, cheese, pork, roast veggies, and many Asian-influenced dishes. Try a higher acid, lower alcohol cuvee to cut through spicy and fatty foods like smoked duck tacos. I even challenge you to pair a robust Petaluma Gap or “Far Sonoma Coast” Pinot Noir whose uncharacteristically thick skins yield a higher tannin profile, with a steak and see what I mean. Pinot Noir, especially those that are fruit-forward and have some good acid, can even pair with rich and spicy Mexican food. Chewy, rich Pinot to stand up to picante carne asada? Pinot: It’s what’s for dinner.

How can I increase the mouthfeel in my wine? My wines, both red and white, just seem to be very thin.

Rikki Fremont
Seattle, Washington

I feel ya! (Yes, pun intended.) Since I don’t have much space left in this column, let me break it down for you in bite-sized pieces. Much more food for thought and things to chew on for future columns. Here are some ways to increase mouthfeel along the winemaking timeline:

Harvest: Pick riper. Higher alcohol and lower acidity always make for rounder-feeling wines.

Fermentation: Ferment reds on oak pieces to start oak extraction early.

Aging: Stir up the lees to liberate mannoproteins, which are found in the cell walls of yeast. This technique always leads to a richer mouthfeel. Also consider some of the new enological tannins from Laffort, Enartis, or AEB. These products don’t make wine tannic per se, but can really fill in some holes.

Bottling: Lower residual carbon dioxide levels. Higher CO2 levels will be perceived as sharp and angular, not round. Also, if you can sterile filter, try bottling with a little residual sugar, like 2–4 g/L. This “sub-threshold” sugar doesn’t come across as sweet but rather as round.