Aaron N. Tubbs bio photo

Aaron N. Tubbs

Dragon chaser.

Twitter Facebook Google+ LinkedIn Github

I’m trying to understand the notion of extraction. Specifically, I’m trying to understand the concept of over-extraction.

I’ve run into folks who feel many wines are over-extracted. Others praise something related, a notion of restraint in a wine’s extraction. The intimation is that perhaps over-extraction is not a flaw. Instead, there may be a style of winemaking that sees benefits in not over-extracting.

Unfortunately, I get confused on the topic. I’ve had some cheap Shiraz that had even me shouting that the wine is criminally over-extracted. I don’t know that what I was saying was accurate, but it felt like I was drinking wine that had been reduced in a pan until it was wine syrup. It may not be that the wine was really over-extracted, but rather that the concentration of something was just far too high. For that matter, from a literal sense the wine could be properly extracted but then altered to have a higher concentration. Perhaps there is not a 1:1 correlation between extraction and concentration.

Continuing these thoughts a little more, I may encounter a wine review that praises precisely the intense concentration of a wine. The 2009 Lafite-Rothschild is for Parker a 100 point “most concentrated Lafite … ever tasted” He rephrases to describe it as “staggeringly concentrated.” Wine Enthusiast calls it “Rich and concentrated.” Wine Spectator describes its “dense core of black fruit and smoldering iron.” Tanzer’s 96 to 99-point rating also praises the wine’s “deep, intense” nose.

So, the wine of the vintage from this year’s vintage of the century is almost universally praised for its concentration, intensity, if not extract? To be fair we’re looking at a particular set of vintage conditions for a very particular region and style of wine, so this may not be a fair game. But, I don’t think anybody’s going to say that the 2009 Lafite is “over-extracted.” So maybe concentration and extraction aren’t just the same thing? Or maybe some wines can be safely more extracted without reaching over-extraction?

Like I say, I get confused. But I think I’m getting ahead of myself.

Just what is extraction?

What is extraction in the first place? Well, we can hit the third edition of the Oxford Companion to Wine, which suggests that extraction:

usually refers to the extraction of desirable phenolics from grape solids before, during and after fermentation, although over-extraction is an increasingly common fault in an era when colour is associated with quality.

Never mind that this definition is awkwardly recursive. It’s sucking the stuff out of crushed grapes that we want, but not too much. I think.

Phenolics means pretty much anything. In the context of extracting phenolics we’re mostly focused on pigmentation, flavor, and tannins.

Getting back to the definition, it’s sort of neat, because right in the definition of extraction we get to the topic that I’m interested in. On the other hand, this definition kind of sucks because it seems to inject a rather subjective aside into something that’s relatively objective.

Okay, so we have a naive understanding of what extraction is, and an aside that there is such a thing as over-extraction. Further, over-extraction is a fault. Hey, it’s in the Oxford Companion to Wine, we don’t mess with it, right?

When all else fails, trust the Internet.

Turns out I can’t leave well enough alone. From a thread on chowhound comes this gem from the poster zin1953:

Extract can refer to weight, but it may be best to think of it as a blend of weight on the palate and intensity of flavor/character. You can have a light-bodied wine that is over-extracted; you can have a full-bodied wine that is under-extracted. And you can have both that are just right.

They then get to the point that interests me:

An over-extracted wine will often show itself to be “bigger” and “chewier” as “Mr. Cookie” describes above, and the tannins will be harder and more harsh, more drying on the palate.

Back to my earlier hunch. Well-respected and well-made wines that “need time” often come across as harsh, harder, and tannic when they are young. All sorts of adjectives are used to describe wines in intense need of further elevage. Some wines sound downright unpleasant.

Still confused.

In the same thread, Robert Lauriston returns to my early premise even more succinctly:

“Extracted” = concentrated, more or less.

Validation from some random person on the Internet. Success!

“Well extracted” is an odd phrase. “Heavily extracted” or, if you don’t like hedonistic fruit bombs, “overly extracted” are more common.

Poop. It’s a matter of taste?

Back to the books.

I return to my original source, via interpretation on Wikipedia (I can’t find this directly in my online copy of Jancis Robinson’s book):

Greater extraction can add to the complexity and life expectancy of the wine by developing more complex tannins that will soften over a longer period of time. With these benefits does come the risk of developing various wine faults, such as the development of acetic (or “volatile”) acidity. Too much extraction can also increase the harshness of some tannins to where the wine is not very approachable to most wine drinkers.

Still judgmental and subjective, but this provides me a more interesting perspective. Longevity and complexity are moderated by extraction level, but there’s two downsides. The first is that we can develop recognizable faults because of the over-extraction. The second is that over-extraction can make the wine too cerebral or inaccessible.

Can I really conclude anything?

I’m not sure what to make of all of this. I believe I can infer a few things:

  • Under-extraction is likely to lead to a thin, ready to drink, easily accessible wine. The downside of under-extraction is that it might not have much life expectancy, complexity, richness, or structure. Under-extraction may not be a flaw, per se, though there’s surely a continuum where “restraint” becomes watery piss.
  • Correct levels of extraction are highly subjective, but higher levels of extraction are generally correlated with higher levels of concentration. Higher levels of extraction result in wines that are more tannic, complex, and age-worthy, but that also may be less approachable in their youth.
  • As a wine approaches over-extraction, it becomes more inaccessible and unapproachable. At first this progression may be highly desired for the wine enthusiast, but there is an inflection point where extraction starts introducing acknowledged flaws. The optimization point, then, becomes achieving a high level of extract without making a flawed, or perhaps inaccessible, wine.

I’m still left with a lot of questions.

I think, however, I have more questions than answers at this point. I must assume that, like with any organic product, the process is not perfectly uniform in any way. Some extractions must lead to heavy levels of tannins but low levels of color or flavor. All the permutations surely manifest in some regard. A wine could then be over-extracted because it is harsh and tannic and yet it lacks in concentration, flavor, and color?

Are there wines that are truly showing restraint in extraction? Wines that could be enthusiastically extracted further without introducing any flaws, yet produce a superior experience by not pushing that far? Truly this can only be subjective, and I realize this, but I wonder if in the collective wisdom and consensus how this issue shakes out. Is the maximization of extraction universally or nearly universally appealing, or is this just the Parker influence?

I have yet to have any truly memorable wine experiences that did not involve a wine with a certain concentration and intensity of flavor and aroma, but maybe I’m just missing out. My friend’s assertion that there’s no such thing as too much excess seems to ring true in theory; I can’t imagine a good vintage Cabernet that I’ve had, say, that would not have benefited by turning everything present otherwise up to 11.

What is the relationship between extraction, concentration, and alcohol levels? What indeed is the perception of extraction when taken in context of the alcohol levels, and does the applicability of extract level moderate with alcohol? Screw alcohol, are there other factors that allow higher or lower levels of extract to produce a more sound wine?