by Gary Twining
Advances in technological research, production knowledge and modern winemaking processes now make it possible to achieve quality and consistency in even the lowest-priced wine. This expansion of technique has many purists asking: Is wine a natural product, or should we allow manipulation in the winemaking method? The question and point of the argument is: If wine is natural, how much of its style, flavor and character should be due to nature, and how much to the winemaker?
Wine gets its character through three influences: heredity (the flavors of the grape), environment (terroir – all the influences on the vine and its fruit in a particular site), and winemaker choices. As much as we would like to argue that wine is a truly natural product, without the hand of man in the process there would be little quality or quantity. Grape juice would naturally ferment beyond the point of drinkability. From the beginning, man has impacted wine’s other two influences through manipulation.
Choices made by the vineyard manager have dramatically improved wine. The use of clones versus mass selection of vines was as controversial when it first occurred as is the current topic of genetic modification. In the Old World, the use of new oak and cultured yeasts is often avoided, yet in the New World, these flavor and extraction influences are common. The use of temperature control and sulfur are pretty universal, though some producers, such as Nicolas Joly in Savennieres, use neither. The debate of nature versus the guiding hand of man continues in all parts of the world, based on the beliefs of producers and their ability to successfully sell their products.
The current use of technology to remove alcohol and water from wine is the latest topic of contention. Regions with wet weather at harvest often suffer from dilution, as the vine puts any excess water available directly into the fruit, unbalancing all components. There are several methods that have gone beyond basic experimentation.
Cryoextraction is one that has been used in Sauternes and Bordeaux. Diluted grapes are frozen. Any water and unripe grapes are frozen solid, allowing separation of the grape’s essences. Where botrytis formation and concentration is hampered, the wine’s extract can then be retained and saved. But many purists consider this technology cheating in a region that prides itself on natural concentration in sweet wines through noble rot and perfect weather.
Vacuum concentrators have been used in Bordeaux to remove excess water from a portion of the must in wet years, thus concentrating the flavors, sugar levels, extract and acidity. There are those who feel that if they are paying for a better example of wine from a classic district, its balance should remain naturally intact. Yet, unless this technique is applied in good and better vintages, should not the quality of the wine be the main concern, especially if the process improves the wine?
Reverse osmosis has been used in California for alcohol reduction in finished wine. Wine has at least two “sweet spots” at different alcohol levels where flavors are different but precise. In warmer climes, alcohol levels are difficult to moderate, so why not maintain flavor and balance the wine? It depends on your value system.
This debate will continue with the introduction of newly developed technologies. If the wine originates from a classic district where terroir is vital to its character, style and price point, the argument favors nature. We as consumers have the final say, as we all vote with our wallets at the checkout counter.