The sham of authentic winemaking

If authenticity in winemaking is so important, then shouldn’t it mean something? Roger Morris thinks the word "authentic" has become meaningless.

Photo by Todd Quackenbush on Unsplash Copy
Photo by Todd Quackenbush on Unsplash Copy

Stop me if I’ve told you this story before. I first heard the words “authentic” and “authenticity” applied to winemaking 15 years ago after a day of tasting and visiting properties in Ribero del Duero. I was having a pleasant conversation with Telmo Rodríquez, whom I had just met, in the lobby of Hotel Fuente de la Aceña in Valladolid. Rodríquez’ reputation as an excellent winemaker who applied his skills to several appellations had preceded him, and the wines he brought with him didn’t disappoint. They were all superb.

Sometime before dinner, Rodríguez told me, “All my energies are in trying to vindicate original winemaking. It is very important to produce wines that are very simple and very original. I want my wines to be authentic.”

My writing pen automatically perked up, sensing some interesting new process or wine philosophy. “Authentic? What do you mean by that?” For the next 15 minutes, the writer in me and the winemaker in Rodríquez wrestled before I saw that I wasn’t going to get a straight answer, a definition. 

What does “authentic” even mean?

Telmo knew that his wines were authentic, but he could not tell me how I could judge if someone else’s wines were similarly authentic. Whatever the Spanish equivalent of Camelot is, Rodríquez had this magical place fixed in his mind’s eye.

In the years since, I have heard dozens of winemakers, perhaps hundreds, espouse their love of “authenticity.” But none have yet given me a clear definition. Of course, I do recognize their romantic longing to make a wine with the soul of the soil, one that hearkens to an earlier time, a golden era, and their desire to make wine “the way they used to make it,” their desire to choose art over science. Instead, “authenticity” has become one of those marketing phrases to signify, “I make wines the way they should be made.” 

But if authenticity is so important, shouldn’t it mean something?

There is an oft-repeated American phrase coined by a Supreme Court justice ruling in a pornography case. The justice admitted he could not define what pornography was, but, he claimed, “I know it when I see it.” As with Rodríquez, I suspect this is the default definition most winemakers have in mind when they are striving for authenticity.

Stripped away from its feel-good status, “authentic” can basically denote one of two things. The first is that something is authentic when it’s proven to be what it says it is and not a fake. “This is an authentic Château Latour 2010 and not a counterfeit bottle.” But the second meaning we hint at with winemaking is that something authentic is true to its roots – a time, place or style – as with Rodríguez or a Sicilian Nero d’Avola producer saying, “I want my wine to be authentic.” 

Here, the problem emerges. We know what an authentic Gucci is, but what is an authentic Sicilian Nero d’Avola, and how does it different from a Sicilian Nero d’Avola that is un-authentic? What do we use as its baseline provenance and time period – say, Mt. Etna region in the 1950’s, or something else? This is the blank that most authenticity-seeking winemakers always fail to fill in.

A look back in time

A few years ago I contacted six famous winemakers from around the world who were producing wine 50 years ago and were still making it today in the same regions. “How,” I asked each of them, “did you make wines in 1963, and what was different back then from how you are making wine now?” I wanted to establish this baseline of time and place for each person.

It was a sterling group – Robert Drouhin in Burgundy, James Symington in the Douro, Marco Felluga in Collio, Joe Babich near Auckland, Mike Grgich in Napa Valley and Angelo Gaja in Barbaresco – and they were all eager to respond.

Drouhin told of old, anaemic vines in his vineyards in 1963 that turned brilliant colors in fall, but produced little fruit. The only fertilizer was manure from the horses who worked the vines. His whites had more skin time and oxidation than today. New barrels were rare. No one understood malolactic fermentation. Egg whites and skim milk were used to clarify the wines and reduce the yellow tinge in the whites.

Field blends were more common in the Duoro in 1963, Symington said, and the only analytics used were for sugar content. Grape selection after picking was less than rigorous. Auto vinification was being tested because of labour shortages. 

Felluga, as did most of the winemakers, bemoaned temperature variations. “The only temperature control we had was by running water on the tank wall of the fibreglass,” he said. Babich had a more basic difference: “French/American hybrids were the most-planted varieties, and these do not exist in any of our vineyards today.” Spontaneous malolactic fermentation in his red wines was a constant headache.

Grgich remembered a similar problem with malo because of poor filtration, and he also told of a problem no one in Napa Valley has today – low grape sugar. “The vines in those days all had leaf-roll virus,” Grgich remembers, “and so had problems with maturing.” Alcohols were often as low as 11% to 12%. “Once, when the Cab was at 18 degrees sugar, we added high-alcohol brandy [to the must] that was 90%.”

“Maceration was in big wood casks or concrete tanks and lasted from 90 to 120 days, with high extraction of green tannins – aggressive!” Gaja said of Piemonte winemaking. “There was no temperature control, so there was often stopped fermentation. Malolactc fermentation was spontaneous later in the spring and summer,” and it was often only partially completed. Similarly, there were no oxygen controls when the wine was pressed with a vertical screw.

None expressed a desire to go back to making “authentic wines” the way they did in ‘63.

But if not authenticity, what?

Truth telling

I would be much more impressed if a winemaker told me, “I prefer to use as many practices as possible that were traditional to the region in my grandfather’s time and adapt more-modern technology only when I see an absolute advantage to it.” Then we could discuss what practices fall within each category.

It’s similarly lazy and unimaginative for a winemaker to say, “I have great terroir to work with.” Instead, why not, “We learned through the centuries (or over the past 20 years) that this vineyard can grow spectacular Chardonnay year in and year out, especially if we use the right clones, rootstocks, trellising and canopy management and harvest at the right time. Having said that, this would probably be horrible terroir if we wanted to grow Riesling.”

As a final note, I should point out that in recalling the past, Drouhin did admit some nostalgia for its pageantry: In 1963, he said, “Supposedly knowledgeable persons would meet in the town hall to decide the best day to start the harvest. This ban de vendange in Beaune would then be a model, at least for the growers of Côte de Beaune. On the last day of the harvest, there would be a bunch of flowers attached to the last horse cart… a tradition which is lost, alas!”

Now, that’s authenticity! 

(At least for Beaune in 1963.)

Roger Morris

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