Cool new wine tech in the Okanagan

This just in folks, a very interesting to development in winemaking. It’s been tested on whites and rose so far, but it could be interesting for reds as well. Essentially, it looks like a way to keep a lot of the aromas in fermenting wines from escaping during fermentation. Anyone who has been around wineries at harvest time knows that there are a lot of amazing aromas when the wines are fermenting. Traditionally, the cooler the fermentation temperature, the less aromas are ‘burned off’. However, cooler fermentation temperatures make for slow fermentations and so this device might be able to help solve that problem. Here’s the press release that I got today…

NEWS RELEASE

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:   Sunday, February 7, 2016

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NEW CO₂ SCRUBBING PROCESS IMPROVES THE AROMA AND TASTE OF WINES

NARAMATA, B.C. – A retired professor of medicine and amateur winemaker living in B.C.’s Okanagan Valley has invented a ground-breaking new process that uses a high-tech CO₂-eliminating membrane to help wineries keep more of the natural aromas in wine during fermentation, producing noticeably better-tasting wines.

And it appears the process might be so easy for wineries to incorporate that Dr. Dick Jones’ invention could sweep through the industry and spark a real improvement in the taste of many wines throughout the Okanagan and potentially around the world.

From his home-based lab and winemaking room in Naramata, Jones says he’s pretty sure his process is a winner, yielding more aromatic, fruitier-tasting wines.  “It’s very exciting.  This could really add value to the wines we make here.  I think it will help to bring more awareness of this region to the wine world.”

Dr. Dick Jones explains his wine CO2-scrubbing process during a recent experiment with Pinot Gris at Pentâge Winery.

Dr. Dick Jones explains his wine CO2-scrubbing process during a recent experiment with Pinot Gris at Pentâge Winery.

Jones isn’t fantasizing about a vague theory.  He’s a solid scientist, a University of Alberta professor of pulmonary medicine for 35 years specializing in lung, cardiovascular and exercise physiology, and the inventor of nicotine nasal spray to help people quit smoking – one of the U of A’s top inventions ever.

Not surprisingly, he has gone about the development of his wine CO₂-scrubbing process with scientific rigour.  He has conducted carefully controlled experiments over three years, including blind taste-tests by experts, as well as chemical analyses of the wines by an independent professional researcher.  In addition, Jones also has the owner of a popular South Okanagan winery on-board as a believer and enthusiastic supporter.

The “Aha!” moment that launched the project came in October 2012, when Jones noticed the Pinot Gris he had fermenting at home, from his own small vineyard, smelled exceptionally good.  But he realized the valuable aroma compounds were being carried out of the wine by the bubbling CO₂ and were lost into the atmosphere, reducing the wine’s flavour.

Winemakers have struggled with this aroma-loss issue for centuries.  Some try to reduce the loss by lower-temperature fermentation or even what Jones calls “major tampering with the wine” – removing aroma compounds then adding them back in after fermentation.

“Up to 80 per cent of a wine’s most important aroma compounds can be lost with the CO₂ during fermentation.”  As an expert in the human lung’s diffusion and expulsion of CO₂, Jones knew at once how he could preserve the wine’s aroma: “I needed a membrane that selectively allowed the CO₂ in the tank’s headspace to escape while leaving the aroma compounds behind.”

Searching for a membrane that would work under winery conditions, he found that a Norwegian professor had recently developed a specialized super-thin membrane for scrubbing CO₂ from the smokestacks of coal-fired power plants.  “It acts like our lungs to get rid of CO₂, it’s made of food-grade material, and it works at room temperature and pressure.  It is perfect for a winery setting.”

The membrane’s inventor, Dr. May-Britt Hägg of the University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, Norway, was enthused about the idea of using it to improve wine aroma and flavour, and she supplied membranes for Jones’ experiments.

When the initial membranes sent for the fall 2013 experiment were damaged in shipping, Jones used CO₂-absorbing soda-lime instead, to test his basic theory.  With 24 litres of Pinot Gris in an experimental tank and the same amount in a control tank, the CO₂ was scrubbed during the first six days of fermentation.  An expert wine-taster compared the resulting wines and scored the experimental wine higher for the important attributes of fruity aroma and taste.

In the fall of 2014 Jones flew to Norway to hand-carry four new 30-by-30-centimetre membranes back to Naramata for a larger, more sophisticated experiment.  This time he had experimental and control tanks of about 25 litres each of Pinot Gris and Gamay Rosé.  After using the membranes to scrub the CO₂ during fermentation and later bottling samples of each, the experimental wines were compared with the control wines in both an extensive taste-test and chemical analysis.

Paul Gardner, left, and Dr. Dick Jones check on small tanks at Pentâge Winery that contain samples of the 2015 Pinot Gris being used to test Jones’ ground-breaking new CO₂ scrubbing process.

Paul Gardner, left, and Dr. Dick Jones check on small tanks at Pentâge Winery that contain samples of the 2015 Pinot Gris being used to test Jones’ ground-breaking new CO₂ scrubbing process.

Paul Gardner and Julie Rennie, owners of Pentâge Winery in Penticton, organized a panel of 10 wine experts who blind-tasted and ranked the wines on seven key aroma and taste attributes.  As Jones reports, “The tasters rated all seven attributes with higher scores for the membrane-treated wines.”  The highest scores were for fruity aroma, complexity, fruity taste, and overall rating.

Samples of the wines were then analysed at the University of B.C.’s Wine Research Centre, comparing their levels of dozens of aroma compounds.  For the Pinot Gris, there was an average increase of 23 per cent in the measured aroma compound concentrations.  This is notable since the membrane was used for only one day during peak CO₂ production.  For the Gamay Rosé, there was an average increase of 66 per cent in aroma compound concentration.

“Overall, the taste-tests and laboratory analyses of the experimental wines proved that using the membranes vs. conventional methods left more aroma compounds, improved mouth feel, and retained fruit flavours in the finished product,” Jones says.

After the testing of the 2014 vintage, Jones knew he had to test his process using commercial winery-quality wine in a real-life winery setting.  Paul Gardner, by now a fan of the process, offered his Pentâge Winery as the location.  This fall the headspace in a 1,000-litre tank containing 700 litres of Pentâge’s 2015 Pinot Gris was treated with the CO₂ scrubbing using an improved version of Dr. Hägg’s membrane, this time made up of thousands of hollow fibres encased in a cylinder.  An identical control tank with 700 litres of the same juice sat next to the experimental tank.  Both were fermented at 15 degrees Celsius.

Jones and Gardner will run samples of this year’s experimental and control wines through another taste-test and chemical analysis sometime between February and April of 2016 – and they can’t wait for the results, since the wine has already scored significantly higher in initial, non-blind taste trials.

Gardner looks forward to the possibilities for Jones’ new process.  “Until now the loss of aroma during fermentation has been accepted because there was no easy way to prevent it,” he says.  “But Dick’s membrane process makes total sense.  The proof is in the pudding – this is definitely a superior wine.  I don’t think it will be long before interest in this is worldwide.”

Both Jones and Gardner say one advantage of the new process is that the equipment for it can be about the size of a suitcase, and the power consumption would be comparable to burning a 100-watt light bulb.

Gardner says he will bottle both the control and experimental wines and sell them as a two-pack special-release Pentâge Pinot Gris, and invite feedback from the customers.

Jones knows if his process is absolutely proven to allow CO₂ out while keeping aromas in the fermenting wine, he’s onto a real winner.  “This is the Holy Grail of white winemaking, and there are likely benefits to using the method on red wine fermentation too.  People have been trying to do this for a long time.”

As the months go by, Jones is gaining confidence that his invention will eventually be used to improve the aroma and taste of many wines.  One more major indication of the uniqueness of his process is the fact that his patent applications have progressed successfully through the initial review stages.  “They assess if the idea is novel, if it represents an inventive step, and if it has commercial potential – and it was given high scores on all three factors.”

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For information contact:          

Dr. Dick Jones, Naramata, B.C.    250-496-5194     jonesdd@shaw.ca

Paul Gardner, Pentâge Winery – Penticton, B.C.  250-493-4008     paul@pentage.com

The Nomacorc Revolution, Part 1

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Wines in BC are sealed with a multitude of closures including natural corks, synthetic corks, and screw tops. There are a few other products out there with exotic closures but the majority are going to be sealed with one of those three types. This is a topic that really grabbed my attention when I read George M. Taber’s book “To Cork or Not to Cork” some years ago and I highly recommend reading it if you are at all interested in wine (which I know you are because you are reading this.) So when I was invited to tour the Nomacorc facility earlier this year, I jumped at the chance to head to southern US and, I had thought, warmer weather.

Based in Raleigh, North Carolina, Nomacorc manufactures synthetic corks through a process called co-extrusion. Simply put, the inner and outer parts of the cork contain different combinations of plastic polymers so that the inside of the cork looks like foam while the outside looks smooth. It’s a off-shoot of another company that produces other soft plastic items such as pool noodles among other things. (FYI – I’m a big fan of pool noodles and was secretly hoping to see this part of the business but unfortunately, no luck. I will remain on alert for other opportunities however…)

First, a disclaimer: Nomacorc very generously payed for my trip to visit them in North Carolina in February. Yes, it was a wine and dine kind of thing but it was a fabulous chance for me to learn about something new and because I’m studying for my WSET diploma right now, I was eager to learn what I could. In fact, I think it’s something that most wine lovers are in the dark about and that people in the industry are really only starting to understand now that there is more scientific data to back up some of the early claims about closures for wine bottles.

20140522-222754-80874934.jpgSecond, another disclaimer: I hate plastic. I have always associated ‘plastic’ with ‘cheap’. Like a lot of people in my generation, I grew up surrounded by plastic toys, ridiculous amounts of plastic packaging, and general overuse of plastic “things” simply because they are cheaper to produce. I believe that the same items made of other materials were far more durable. To me, plastic signifies a race to the bottom. How cheaply can we make something so that we can sell it for less and make the most money in our big-box or dollar store?

Third, yet another disclaimer: I am not a scientist and therefore cannot claim that anything I write here is completely factual and devoid of my own opinion. I’m a wine blogger and that’s just not how we roll. If you are looking for that, I urge you to head over to my friend Becca’s blog, The Academic Wino.

Suffice it to say that with all that going into this trip, Nomacorc had to do more than a good sales pitch to get me not to cringe whenever I pulled a plastic cork out of a bottle of wine. I, like many people, saw plastic corks as cheap. I’ve fought with those brightly coloured, moulded plastic plugs for more time than it should take anyone to open a bottle of anything, only to surrender and push the cork down into the neck of the bottle. It may not have affected my enjoyment of the wine on that evening, I certainly avoided purchasing that same wine, or the other wines they produced, again.

My prior professional experiences with plastic corks were not altogether positive either. This occurred at a winery where I used to work and it involved a late harvest wine sealed with a Nomacorc. The cork would easily be pulled out about a half inch and then simply release itself without so much as a “pop” of even a “fft”. They sealed fine and I don’t recall any of them leaking at all but customers would often notice the lack of “pop”. Many staff members actually used to turn away from the tasting bar while they opened them. The newly pulled corks were tapered slightly and conformed to the shape of the bottle. The neck of the bottle looked like it was narrower than the opening at the top. Perhaps the quality of the bottle was not as high as I think most bottle necks are supposed to be parrallel, but I could be wrong.

So perhaps the Nomacorc is not really compatible with the design tolerances of the bottle used for that particular late harvest. But the negative image of the ‘synthetic’ cork persists and if I, as a wine professional, can’t be enthusiastic about a cork closure (and not show the wine being opening out of embarrassment) then my attitudes about it are going to influence the customer’s attitudes as well, even unintentionally.

20140425-194623.jpgBradley Cooper, winemaker at Township 7 in Naramata, BC, has been using Nomacorc products for part of their portfolio prior to his arrival for the 2005 vintage. They seal bottles of their quick-to-market whites and their Syrah and Chardonnay with Nomacorc Select 300’s. Mr. Cooper has received only limited negative responses to the use of the synthetic closures but stresses that any information like that is anecdotal and not empirical. Even still, he mentions that in general customers who spend over $30 / bottle expect a natural cork closure. Two of Township 7’s premium wines, a Chardonnay and a Syrah, have Nomacorc closures and I have enjoyed both of those wines frequently in the past although I don’t recall if I was shocked or put out by either of them having a synthetic closure.

So what is so special about Nomacorc’s closures and why would they bring me across the continent to visit the snowy metropolis of Raleigh, North Carolina in February? And did they change my mind about ‘synthetics’?

It all has to do with “oxygen management” and I see it as the final step for winemakers to control the quality and longevity of a wine after it has been bottled. This is revolutionary in my opinion and represents the last real frontier in control of product from start to finish.

To illustrate, I am forced to use highly romantic imagery. Please do not avert your gaze. That scene on the porch in “Sideways” where Maya talks about what she likes about wine (ending with the line how it “tastes so f^%king good” is all about that romantic unpredictability. The more adventurous wine lovers relish that idea of uncorking a new experience, even with a wine that they may have tried before. When you buy a case of wine and drink it over 5 years, the wines are going to be different and some people love that. It makes it special, unpredictable, and unique – symbolically human, in a way. When you tasted it at the winery, it started out as something that appealed to you so you bought a case. Over the next x-number of years it may change and evolve into something that will take you on a journey with different aromas, flavours, and textures. It can be quite exciting and that’s part of what I really like about wine.

20140610-172517.jpgThat’s what wine has traditionally been – different from bottle to bottle. Try two bottles of the same wine and it’s likely to taste a little different. There are so many variables that can affect a bottle of wine that it’s amazing anyone drinks it at all. A bottle of whisky is going to be a bottle of whisky no matter where and when it’s opened. Same with cola, or juice, or ‘fruit drink’ of your choice. Wine is simply not as predictable as those products.

Those romantic differences and variations between bottles are caused by small amounts of oxygen getting into the wine through the cork. It’s not necessarily a bad thing – that’s how wines age naturally. But it can be unpredictable and go too far causing oxygen-related faults (like having a Merlot that smells like raisins and prunes instead of fresh plums and berries).

So let’s take out the oxygen altogether by using a screw top. Seal ‘er up! That’ll solve it. The traditional wine media have been mysteriously unified and vocal about their support for the screw top for over a decade – it must be the answer.

Well, unfortunately no. Sealing oxygen out of the bottle only seems to produce different kinds of faults in wines that are aged. Screw cap manufacturers have figured out that this is bad and are now trying to find ways of allowing oxygen into the bottle with a screw cap. And oddly, screw caps are delicate since the only part that actually seals the bottle is a tiny little strip around the cap itself, which can easily be damaged via mishandling by any of the many people that bring your wines to the store. I’ve worked at wineries that are extra careful about stacking pallets of screw top-closed wines too high in the warehouse. I’ve also seen my share of dented tops. (Screw caps are another debate that I’ll leave for later…)

Nomacorc thinks they have the answer to all of those problems – wine faults caused by oxygen and durability – using their synthetic corks.

So, did they convince me?

(…To be continued…)