Just How Good is Modern Winemaking
Winemaking technology has taken large strides in the last 50 years, producing a minor revolution in how the wine is made. And, make no mistake, the “traditional” wineries of Europe are frequently leading the way in these innovations.
The underlying winemaking principles remain the same, but goals are being achieved more easily and more gently, and giving purer flavours – minimising those characters which arise as artifacts of the more primitive ways of doing things. For example, winemakers used to press grapes within a wooden cage, screwing down a pressing plate to extract the juice at pressures up to 2 atmospheres. Now we have scrupulously clean, programmable stainless-steel presses with an internal air bladder that gently presses grapes; they are capable of releasing quality juice at one-tenth of this pressure (0.2-0.4 atmospheres) when necessary, thereby almost completely removing the extraneous (bitter and stalky) flavours which can be associated with higher pressures. Previously, wines were always processed into large wooden containers in the presence of air, necessitating robust wine styles which could withstand the inevitable oxidation. Now we have the advantage of completely sanitary, enclosed stainless-steel tanks and inert gases such as carbon dioxide, nitrogen and even argon. These wines are not challenged by oxidation (except when we feel it is desirable) or any unwanted microbial contamination, and the wine styles can therefore be more refined while still suitable for long-term cellaring.
Changes such as these have driven overall quality, but there are many "traditional" aspects which have also been preserved wherever it is recognised that they remain the best way of doing things. For example, although some cheap wines can be made by including wood chips in the ferment, a quality winery such as ours recognizes that oak barrels remain the best way for maturing red wine and Chardonnay, and so this practice persists. We also recognize that the temperature of the best French cellars (12°C) is a quality factor, and make sure our own cellars are held at this temperature. We still hand-harvest grapes into small containers and etc, etc, Occasionally there is a conflict between the technology for achieving improved throughput and maintaining quality – for example, there are efficient modern pumps for the transfer of grape mash, but Dry River still elects to transfer by gravity or bucket because of the minute changes to flavour attributed to the more modern method.
Winemaking colleges and their certifications, universities and their winemaking degrees have spread prolifically over the last 20 years. There is training available for all aspects of making wine, so it would seem that with enough money and the right qualifications winemakers should be able to provide the best possible outcomes in most wineries. However, these institutions focus mostly on the basics of making wine economically and efficiently, and not on making the finest possible product. At present there is no coherent “science of fine winemaking”. The fundamentals of processing and fermentation are understood and taught, but the details of how to help the best possible wines emerge are yet to be thoroughly understood.
One of the problems that winemakers encounter is that winemaking has also to be matched to the fruit used, and hence some aspects can be regional and even site-specific. If wines take, say, 10 years to be fully mature, it is not difficult to see why it might take many decades to evolve the best possible general and site-specific approaches to making them. In these circumstances, winemakers in traditional areas such as Burgundy appear to have a considerable advantage because they can hand down experience in the form of tradition. However, with changing cultural attitudes to style and the advantages of improving technology, we have seen the danger of not adapting fast enough, particularly when practices have become entrenched in law as they have done in France. Slavish adoption of “traditional” methods in the New World create further problems, as well as the difficulty of having a radically different terroir. In the short term, our wineries have no choice but to develop a policy of careful, long-term evolution but better understanding of the process involved will eventually enable better decision-making. However, unraveling natural processses is never easy – fermentations and so on inevitably involve hundreds of flavour and aroma compounds but nonetheless, discerning what is important and how to conceptualise what is happening in a scientific and useful fashion remain keys to progress.
It is reasonable to claim that our technological needs are now met in the obvious areas: crushing and pressing grapes, containment and protection of the wine, filtration and bottling the wines. However, the winemaker’s role is to oversee natural and apparently simple processes which are in fact a complex collection of chemical and biochemical transformations. His/her goal is to make wine in a gentler and less intrusive fashion: he/she cannot create flavours, but can try to maximise and protect them, since by the time the grapes are harvested the ceiling on how good the wine will be is already set. The options for protecting the flavours as harvested are largely limited to delay, diversion or taking control of the various parts of these natural processes. Understanding these in detail is a key to the best choices. For example, we still sorely lack sufficient understanding of the traditional role of sulphur dioxide pre- and post-fermentation and of the way this links with the preservation of flavours and the direction of maturation. There are quality issues for subsequent wine maturation involved with what happens before, during and after bottling, such as in the role of oxidation (and how much), the various effects of temperature throughout, natural enzymatic levels and how to influence these. Phenolics, polyphenolics and organoleptic wine structure are now typical for long-live wines and health, but we are still just scratching the surface with our understanding here too.
And, having worked through all these issues, we are still left with the knowledge that the winemaker is only the caretaker for a delicate natural product. He can do no better than what his vineyard manager, the weather and the site allow him to!