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Saltiness in Wine

©Richard Gawel

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(Firstly, I apologise for the distinctly Aussie slant on this article. I've footnoted a few bits for the uninitiated - RG)

Why are so many Australian wines salty? Don't get me wrong, personally I can only remember tasting two or three wines that I suspected of having nuances of salt pan or Albany* oysters. That question was posed to me some years ago by an absolute nutter of a German fellow who had been travelling across Australia tasting every single wine he could get his Messerschmidt's on. We were at a wine tasting together. I don't think he was invited, but I suspect that he wandered over after hearing the irresistible crack of the roll on tamper evidents. He was pretty keen on the local drop but he did loudly reserve that one criticism.

But after a while I got thinking. Perhaps he was right. I had lived in Adelaide for most of my life. As such, I grew up with a summery cocktail of Mount Bold and Murray River** water. The latter was carefully filtered to remove all the muck stirred up by the piscatorial Eurotrash^, but the filtering did nothing to remove the millions of tons of salt washed into the river each day. Perhaps I was just used to it. And it turned out that indeed I was.

Comparisons between the Australian wines and those from the US and Europe have revealed that on average ours are much saltier. In fact the average amount of chloride, which is one of the components that makes up table salt, was found to be on average 5 times higher that that found in the other countries' wines. A wide ranging survey of juices by the Australian Wine Research Institute showed that around 10% of the Australian juices selected for analysis would have produced wines that could not be exported to Europe because of their high chloride levels.

I should make it quite clear that high levels of chloride in wine isn't bad for your health. You would have to drink 100 bottles of a wine of average saltiness in order to exceed your maximum daily intake of salt. The Europeans are hung up on the level of chloride as they see it as an indicator of Reverse Osmosis, a wine making practice banned in Europe. Not that there is anything inherently evil about Reverse Osmosis either, but as the Europeans have no need for it, but as their competitors sometimes do, they banned it.

However it is a fact that many Australian wines have salt levels above the sensory taste threshold. So 'Hans' it seemed got it right. You can taste salt in many Australian wines. But why are some so high?

A lot of it gets down to what the vine drinks itself. In many cases it is either salty water from the Bidgee^^ or the Murray, or even saltier ground water that is pumped up using vineyard bores. The vine takes up the salt through its roots and deposits it in the fruit. In some places salty water is pumped from the ground and sprayed over the leaves and bunches using watering sprinklers. Like a nicotine patch to a 3 packet per day smoker, the vine happily gobbles up the salt directly through its leaves and again deposits some of it into the grapes, and particularly the region just beneath its skin.

In some places vines are planted on American vine rootstocks which are known to restrict the uptake of salt. 1103 Paulsen, 140 Ruggeri and the ubiquitous Ramsey (also known as Salt Creek) are fairly effective in this regard. Grape variety is another factor which influences salt uptake. All else being equal, Shiraz vines for example, are known to take up over 40% more salt than Chardonnay vines. Furthermore, given that red winemaking involves skin contact with the juice during fermentation, significantly more salt is leached out from the skins into the finished wine. Incidentally, the last clearly salty wine that I tasted was a Shiraz wine from Padthaway, a region with ground water not unlike mildly diluted sea water and with a fetish for using overhead irrigation (at least at that time anyway).

So should we get hung up about it? Probably not. In some cases high salt levels have been shown to improve strongly acidic wines by softening them. This principal is the same as that which underlies the practice by some people of adding a pinch of salt to their acidic coffee in an attempt to make it more palatable.

'Hans' probably got used to the salt after a while anyway. Personally I think that some of the searingly acidic Germanic Muller Thurgeau's could do with a bit themselves. Perhaps we could swap the Murray for the Rhine. Good idea, but we still wouldn't be rid of those blasted Carp.

* Albany - a lovely fishing town on the Southern Coast of Western Australia. Produces the saltiest, iodiney Pacific oysters anywhere.

** Australia's longest river, the Murray has waters that contain large amounts of salt, leached into the system from rising water tables caused by the clearing of forests and use of irrigation thirsty crops such as rice and cotton.

^ European Carp were introduced into the River system over half a century ago. They then proceeded to wipe out the native fish and as scum sucking bottom dwellers then murked up the rivers. What's worse is they taste awful and are full of bones. One of Australia's greatest environmental disasters.

^^ Short for Murumbidgee, a major tributary of the Murray River.