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The Processes of Wine Stabilization

by Staff Writer - B. Shaughnessy | February 04, 2012

The enjoyment of wine by the masses appears to be growing at a steady rate. Today more than ever people are discovering the joys and health benefits from the drinking of wine. With the course of wine consumption increasing, many wine consumers are often misinformed or incorrectly influenced by market trends. An example of the influence of market trends involves residual compounds found within some of the finest quality wines.

The process of clarification aims to remove unwanted particles found within wine. These particles can lead to cosmetic--and sometimes flavor degrading--changes within wine. While technology has allowed the clarification process to do an exceptional job at removing many damaging particles, there is still the risk that wine may loose its stability over time. A wine that looses its stability has a greater chance of forming crystal deposits when stored in bottles.

The action of an aged wine forming deposits is a completely natural process. The deposits that are found in wine are mostly tartrate crystals. These tartrate crystals are completely natural and in most cases, conducive to a high quality wine. The logic behind this statement can be seen in the degenerative effects of over processing a wine. As is the case with any process, the more the final product is handled the more likely the final product will suffer in some way. In wine processing this can be seen with excessive processing techniques used to remove superficial abnormalities. In this instance, as more work is performed to prevent the formation of tartrate crystals, more of the wine's quality is lost. Unfortunately, the tastes of the masses have come to expect wine to be free of deposits. Therefore many wineries perform extensive stabilization techniques which lead to some of the wine's quality being sacrificed. Technology has kept up to date and in all possible cases the reduction of quality is minimized.

Traditional stabilization processes involve cooling the wine to a temperature of just above freezing. This temperature varies for wine as different percentages of alcohol have different freezing points. Immediately after the desired temperature has been reached, the wine is placed in insulated temperature controlled tanks and stored for eight days. During this time the cold temperatures promote the formation of crystals from minute particles. Crystals that form eventually grow bigger and eventually become big enough to be removed from the wine.

This traditional process of stabilization is extremely inefficient. From an energy standpoint, it is very expensive to chill and keep vast quantities of wine at low temperatures for an extended period of time. Further, large modern wineries with high throughput may view this process as a hindrance. Storing wine for extended periods significantly increases turnaround time for getting the product out the door. Also there is the question of the overall effectiveness of using the traditional cold stabilization process. This can be seen in crystal formation only occurring at the bottom of the tank. Convection currents can move the crystals around and thus increase their exposure to the wine, but movement within this process goes against the static nature of the cold stabilization process. Finally, the effectiveness in using the cold stabilization process is further questioned when taking into account the influence of stable colloids. Stable colloids are found within wine and are a necessary component. These stable colloids have the tendency to act as a natural suppressor of crystal formation. Only over time do these colloids loose their effect. This usually occurs long after the wine has been bottled. Thus the very nature of the chemical makeup of the wine can lead to the ineffectiveness of the cold stabilization process. When taking each of the deficiencies of the cold stabilization process into account, it is logical that alternate stabilization technologies are quickly supplanting the traditional processes.

Viewing the deficiencies found within the cold stabilization process, enterprising individuals have worked to develop the contact stabilization process. The contact stabilization process still promotes crystal formation as the primary method of stabilization, however many of the inefficiencies found within the traditional cold stabilization process have been eliminated. In the contact stabilization process, the wine is chilled and brought into contact with pre-formed crystals of potassium bitartrate. The wine is then agitated for several hours. The addition and agitation of the potassium bitartrate causes the extraction of tartarate via the growth of the potassium bitartrate crystals. When the duration of processing has been met, the resulting wine is filtered and the crystals are effectively separated.

An additional process for stabilization exists within the form of ion exchange. This process is similar to ion exchangers used for water softening systems. In this process, the potassium and calcium responsible for the formation of deposits are attracted to special resin beads of the ion exchange system. With the attraction properties of the ion exchange system, the potassium and calcium are successfully removed from the wine and replaced with sodium bitartrate. While the ion exchange system is successful at removing the components that lead to the formation of deposits, the introduction of sodium bitartrate can be considered to be a deficiency. It is a known fact that excess sodium is not recommended in one's diet. Therefore, removing potassium and calcium and substituting sodium bitartrate creates a wine that loses many of its health benefits.

One of the newest stabilization techniques is known as electrodialysis. In this technique, a special membrane that allows the passage of potassium, calcium and tartarate ions is utilized. A static charge is applied to the wine that encourages the potassium, calcium and tartarate ions to pass through the membrane. This process has several important advantages over other stabilization process. The stabilization can be constantly monitored by continually checking the conductivity of the wine itself, energy costs are reduced, pre-treatment of the wine is eliminated and the results are reliable. The downside to the electrodialysis stabilization technique is that the costs of implementing electrodialysis stabilization are high.

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