In defence of winemaking technology

Fans of natural wines claim that conventional winemakers are creating manipulated and artificial products. Robert Joseph hits back.

Photo by Iñigo De la Maza on Unsplash Copy
Photo by Iñigo De la Maza on Unsplash Copy

I apologise in advance, but in order to write this column, I have to start off by being a little immodest. I think I know a bit about wine and have a reasonably efficient palate. I’ve had a weekly column in a London newspaper, written quite a few books, and chaired and been invited to taste at competitions across the world (and am on the board of Meininger’s MundusVini).

Of course, my preferences may differ from other experienced tasters with whom I’ve worked over the years, and if we are honest, we all have blind spots. On balance, however, we usually agree on which wines are better than others. 

This week, my supposed expertise was put to the test when I helped to blend a couple of red wines to be sold under a private label in the US market. Blending across vats was essential to create sufficient volumes of consistent wine.

The winery had selected around 20 samples as possible candidates and, after drawing up a short list of preferences, we spent an engrossing and hard-working afternoon playing with a range of combinations.

Anyone who has been through this exercise will have discovered just how challenging and surprising it can be. The positive – or negative – effect of adding a few percentage points more or less of what appears to be a very similar wine can be immense and unpredictable. Aromas can become more expressive; tannins can soften or harden. A long finish can suddenly disappear – or emerge. 

On this occasion, our targets were a Bordeaux-style and a Rhône-style red, and we were working with wines from varied soils, altitudes and vine ages. Most of the samples were unwooded, but some that been been in tanks with oak staves were diverse in their flavours, ranging from one that was extraordinarily whisky-like to another whose vanilla character was attractively subtle. We rejected the former out of hand, only to discover that an Irish customer had loved it and placed a sizeable order. Another reject – with 15% alcohol and obvious oak – had been chosen by a Chinese buyer who was convinced that it was what his customers would  like.

Our shortlisted components were selected on taste alone, and I was fascinated to learn that among them were a couple that had been thermovinified – the process of heating grapes and must before fermentation. Others had been aged in flexitanks whose slight porosity effectively mimics the effect of an old oak barrel.

In writing this last paragraph, I am acutely aware of the reactions I have almost certainly aroused in at least a few readers. The use of oak staves and thermovinification is precisely the kind of behaviour natural wine fans would term ‘high tech’ and ‘manipulation’.

Those same readers would feel just as outraged, or possibly even more so by what we did next, which was to add the equivalent of two grams per litre of rectified concentrated grape must to one blend and three grams to the other.

There are so many reasons for not doing this, they would claim, ranging from the ‘trickery’ implicit in its addition, to the intrinsically evil nature of sugar in terms of its impact on our health,

So what can I say in our defence? Well, to answer the second charge first, I’d point out that the amount of sugar that a person would consume if they drank half a bottle of either of our blends, would be the equivalent of less than half a square of Lindt 70% cocoa dark chocolate. In other words, if anyone were really bothered about obesity the calories from the alcohol in the wine – 13.7% – should be of far greater concern.

As for the ‘trickery’, all I can say is that when we compared the wines with and without various small doses of sweetness, we all preferred the ones we ended up with. They were more aromatic, apparently fruitier, rounder and longer. What they were emphatically not – with their final total residual sugar levels of around three and four grams per litre – was perceptibly sweet. And nor did they taste ‘industrial’ or ‘dull’ – the kind of description that is all too often casually aimed at any wine that has benefited from anything but the most basic of winemaking methods. 

And that’s essentially why I’m writing this post. I love simply made wines; I helped my neighbours produce them in Burgundy when I lived there in the late 1970s. There was no thermovinificaton, and no staves and no commercial yeasts. It was apparently everything a natural winemaker might dream of. But they were often less simple than they appeared.

Almost every year, bags of cane sugar were emptied into even the finest estates’ fermentation vats in order to raise the alcoholic degree to 12.5 percent. Cellars were heated to kick off malolactic fermentation in whites. And of course some of the best producers like Henri Jayer were removing stems and cold-soaking their grapes before fermentation. All of which sounds a lot like manipulation to me.

Far too many producers abused chaptalisation of course, just as far too many Australian wineries have abused acidification. But handled properly, both procedures are impossible to detect. Like the technology that lay behind our two blended reds.

If great chefs are allowed to use innovative equipment to produce delicious dishes, why – conceptually – aren’t wine producers given similar leeway?

And why is it worse to use sugars derived from grape juice to make a wine taste more delicious than it is to sprinkle a little salt on a steak? How many of the people who dismiss the notion of adding small amounts of sweetness have actually tried doing so – and tasted the resulting wines blind against the unsweetened versions?

Assuming our wines get over the next few hurdles – of being well received by distributors – I am looking forward to quietly slipping final bottled examples into tastings where they’ll be judged by some of the critics who’ve been the loudest in damning high-tech winemaking. I’m prepared to make a serious bet that they won’t be able to diagnose the techniques that have been used. If I’m wrong, I’ll concede that they have better palates than mine. Until then, I’m going to go on focusing on deliciousness.

Robert Joseph

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