Solution Chemistry

Hi Clark,

Great to see you here.

In the book, you say that the solution chemistry model for wine is false.

Do you mean provides an incomplete understanding?

What about whites vs reds?

Aromatic whites vs lees oriented whites?

Lighter reds vs more structured ones?

It seem that many of your points are focused on structured reds.

How does the application of Solution Chemistry vary with different types of wine?

PS. I am sending an email. I need wine from you.

Glad we are starting with this fundamental question, the subject of Chapter 1 (The Solution Problem) in Postmodern Winemaking, and upon which most everything in the book builds.

The solution model has useful application for working with such basic wine stability arenas as the interplay of acidity (pH, not TA) on the effectiveness of SO2 against microbes, but it becomes less useful when modeling such nuances as aromatic integration, where I have argued that the deviation from solution model ideality is a pretty good working definition of quality.

In physics, Newton’s F = ma is a good approximation for most engineering problems, but when working in the realm of subatomic particles or near light speed, it breaks down. It’s a good foundation to start from, after which we move on to quantum mechanics and relativity. In the same way, I teach the solution model in my Fundamentals of Modern Wine Chemistry class, but conclude by exploring the dominant role of suspended colloids in determining texture, aromatics, stability and longevity.

We are mostly talking about reds here. Most modern whites are made to minimize the structure. They are the children of Blue Nun: fresh, clean, pure and simple, made possible by atomic energy. Without the Bomb, you don’t get the German company, Nuclepore, etching the first sterile filters in nuclear reactors. Before WWII, there was no off-dry white wine, and the prospect of sweet, fruity rieslings took the world by storm in the 1960s, converting California from 95% port and sherry in 1960 to 95% table wine by 1970, almost all of it Chablis, Sauterne, Rhinewine and varietals like Grey Riesling and Green Hungarian.

The German winemaking system, which also included exclusion of oxygen via inert gas and stainless steel, soon led to fresh wine as far away as New Zealand. Emile Peynaud modernized Bordeaux by applying this system to serious reds, with disastrous results we are still sorting out.

It’s the job of modern whites to push aromatics such as esters and terpenes up into the nose. These are not very soluble in water, so the lower the ethanol, the better this works. That’s solution chemistry at work. But big reds have already too much aromatics (berries, nuts, chocolate and vegetal aromas) and during aging, oak and microbial characters are added to it, so we end up with complaints about excessive veg, Brett and/or oak. But we think these are caused by excessive amounts of dissolved compounds, ignoring the importance of good colloidal structure to reduce their volatility.

This is where the solution model breaks down, and thresholds stop predicting workability, leading to confusing discussions about “good Brett” and "bad Brett,” while what’s largely going on is good structure and bad structure.
But there are still structured white wines such as Muscadet-sur-lies, champagnes and orange wines that entirely depend on structure for their character and longevity. My 2003 Chardonnay is such a wine, and is still in very good shape after a decade, with a bit of green still present in the color. It is still reasonably fresh, but that is not its virtue. It’s profound and soulful like a red, more sexy than pure.

I just ordered your book. Have been excited by your discussions so far and only wish I had picked it up in time for your visit here.

Sorry if this is rehashing the contents in your book, but could you talk a bit about what you consider the elements of good and bad structure, in dry reds for example? Structure is something that gets bandied around quite a bit, and often in tasting notes it seems a stand-in for mouthfeel and tannin, but just as often it is mentioned in separate breath from acidity, alcohol and tannin, as if they are separate and distinct from “structure”.


This question gives me an opportunity to introduce you to a wonderful resource I’ve set up at There is an interactive glossary there of postmodern terms such as structure. Within many of the definitions are other words which arer also defined within the glossary, so you can hop around and get the gist in a short time. I recommend simply reading the glossary from A to Z, linking on words you’d like clarified.

In this case, you should also read up there on tannin types. The quick version is that there are three types of aggressive tannin collectors are well advised to distinguish from one another.

  1. Hard. In balanced young red wines, early and careful exposure to oxygen leads quickly transforms green tannin into an aggressive, sheet-like, grippy “hard” tannin which is perceived entirely on the top of the tongue, covering the whole palate back to the throat. This type of tannic aggressivity is a good sign, and such wines will improve with age.

  2. Dry. “Dry” tannins leave a coarse, grainy impression all over the tongue and cheeks and interfere with other taste impressions. Dry tannin is the only type of tannin perceived under the tongue in the back of the mouth. It is the result of overly polymerized tannin, and its aggressivity should not be taken as a call to age the wine. Dry tannin is unstable and prone to precipitate, hence a marker signifying poor ageing potential. Dry tannin can also be present in young wines if produced from grapes left too long on the vine.

  3. Parching/Numbing. Oak tannins are perceived as a finely grained “parching/numbing” astringency on the top of the tongue in front but back from the tip. They contain the anesthetic eugenol, which causes a numbing hollowness in this region, surrounded by fine, parching aggressivity. Because of their position on the tongue, oak tannins are easily confused with firmness or roundness. Oak tannins can eventually soften with time in the bottle, but their presence is a mark of clumsy winemaking.

There are many English-speaking connoisseurs, critics and Masters of Wine who employ this term in a very different way. Their use does not address any physical arrangement in the wine itself, but rather an aesthetic mapping of the elements of balance, such as acidity, sugar, bitterness, astringency, and alcohol which work together in a pleasing and balanced manner. To them, a wine with good structure is one in which the elements together create a focused and harmonious whole as might the characters in a well-spun narrative or musical composition. The French oenologues with whom I have worked use the term structure in my physical sense as described above (indeed, that’s where I learned it), and I suspect that like the terms grappe (bunch) and raisin (grape), Anglos long ago simply misapprehended their French acquaintances and gave birth to an English usage that differs in its particulars. I will argue for the utility and predominance of my more literal usage, in which the structure exists in the wine itself and not as a human aesthetic theoretical construct.

Thanks for this. Touring the glossary while I wait for the book to arrive. In the meantime, another Q relative to tannins:

What are the postmodern winemaker’s thoughts about whole cluster, partial destemming, carbonic maceration etc, and how it changes or what it adds to wine with respect to specific tannins or other compounds?

Thanks again for your time!

Whole cluster pressing is simply a way to minimize tannins and pulp solids in juice, using the stems for juice channels. It’s effective for aromatic varieties like Riesling and Gewurz made in the modern style. These tend to have excessive tannin and can be bitter, and also have terpene aromas which are prone to oxidation by the hydrogen peroxide spun off as a byproduct of oxidative polymerization, so minimizing the tannin leads to fresher, fruitier, more delicate wines.

Carbonic maceration uses the grape’s own enzymes instead of yeast to conduct the alcoholic fermentation. The grapes are not crushed - just stacked in a tank and blanketed with carbon dioxide. These wines tend to be very high in fruity amyllic esters. These are natural artifacts of all fermentations, but are normally destroyed (cleaved) by grape enzymes. Since in CM, the fruit is intact, the enzymes are still sequestered in vacuoles in the grape tissue and do not act on the esters.

I see whole cluster being touted mostly by Pinot winemakers, not whites. And was under the impression that it was de rigueur in Burgundy because they did not have equipment for destemming.

Along the same lines, I see various high end PN makers touting the exact % of Whole Cluster ferm. in each batch.

How do you see the impact of 0% vs. 25% vs 50% vs. 75% vs. 100% whole cluster ferm. in PN?

Also, what effect do you see on wine structure and chemistry from stem inclusion vs whole cluster?

Ah, you mean whole cluster fermentations, not pressing.

This is not done for lack of equipment, but because it makes a very different style. I often make half my Pinot this way and the other half normal crush and de-stem. In my experience, these wines Pinot tend to lack body and richness compared to conventional, but they have lots of perfume and spice. Much depends on the condition of the stems, which if green give anti-oxidation properties and can help co-pigment but also lend bitterness t the wine for its first few years. California fruit is very different from Burgundy, and wholesale attempts in the ‘80s to imitate the French in this way had mixed results.