Additives in wine (or anything else) are a source of controversy, and most connoisseurs would react with horror at the idea of drinking a flavored wine.
However, think about this: there are nearly three dozen additives allowed in the production of wine in America. These range from fining agents to chemicals such as copper sulfate, acetaldehyde, urease, catalase, and ammonium sulfate. You can add oak chips to simulate the taste of barrel aging, add or decrease various acids, subject the wine to reverse osmosis, or spin it in a centrifuge. Ever hear of Mega Purple? It’s a thick grape concentrate used to enhance the color of red wines that don’t appear powerful enough.
Take all that into account when viewing the experiments conducted by Rob McDonald, winemaker at Napa’s Art + Farm. McDonald is aging wine on peach, ginger, coffee, jalapeno, and habanero peppers. The wines are called St. Mayhem, and they are currently distributed in 30 states at a price of $25 per bottle.
“I was sitting around one day after work, drinking a coffee-flavored craft beer,” he recalls, “and the light bulb went off. I thought, why can’t we do this with wine?”
He currently makes Sauvignon Blanc aged on habanero and jalapeno, Chardonnay aged on peach and ginger, and Merlot aged on coffee and jalapeno. In very broad terms, the process isn’t much different from the widespread practice of aging wine on its lees (dead yeast cells). Jalapenos and habaneros obviously aren’t natural byproducts of fermentation, but the general concept is the same.
I found his Lake County Sauvignon Blanc to be the most successful of the three. It has mouthwatering acidity and classic grapefruit flavors, with the peppers adding layers of complexity. The heat sneaks up on you and builds gradually, noticeable but not overpowering. The ginger takes over the Chardonnay, adding a peppery kick in the mid palate and creating a lean and focused texture. The red wine is the most radical: McDonald used a Mendocino Merlot to brew a batch of Costa Rican coffee, then aged the wine on jalapenos.
The real payoff of these wines comes with food pairings, particularly spicy cuisines such as Thai, Mexican, or Szechuan, where the spices in the dish balance the heat in the wine. McDonald is focusing on making small batches at a time, since he feels the flavors are more distinctive when they’re fresh.
“Initially I assumed that the customer for St. Mayhem would be younger people who grew up drinking craft beer,’ he says, “but the appeal has been much broader than that. There’s been an explosion of interest, and the people who like them become really exuberant over them.”
Mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History (Lyons Press, 2012) and Moonshine Nation (Lyons Press, 2014); his first novel, Friend of the Devil, is forthcoming from Black Opal Books in Spring 2016. For more information, go to amazon.com