A few thoughts on wine

1 August 2012

During my recent trip to California, I thought about what characteristics I like in a wine. All the way from the farming and viticultural aspects to the techniques used in the cellar. Most of this is just common sense and nobody would say these qualities are revolutionary – in fact, they’re becoming the norm in high end wine-making. This is to help me enumerate exactly what I want in a wine and how this may change over time.

In the Vineyard

  1. Use primarily organic farming techniques – avoid using pesticides, fertilizers, or any genetically-modified products when possible.
  2. Green harvest and prune aggressively – vineyard management during the growing season should be the most labor intensive part of the wine-making process, whether managing the canopy, green harvesting to reduce yields, this, I believe, is where the wine is made. Yields should not be greater than 3-4 tons per acre.
  3. Take risks on when to harvest Рwait for full phenolic ripeness. Not too early and definitely not too late. Early harvests that result from fears of rain lead to a bitingly acidic wine that lacks complexity and character. Harvesting over-ripe grapes (California and Argentina does this more often than other regions) yields jammy, heavy fruit bombs with no balance.  Produce what is possible under these circumstances.
  4. Use old vines when possible – with naturally reduced yields and higher concentration, old vines are usually preferred to young vines.
  5. When possible, harvest by hand with workers who know the vineyard site – the selection process should start at harvest. Use the same workers when possible to ensure proper execution.
  6. Exercise extreme selection – all non-ripe grapes should be sorted by machine and by hand. Only ripe grapes should go into the wine.

In the cellar

  1. Native yeasts – use the native yeasts that exist on the grape skin when possible. If additional yeast is needed, use cultures developed from the yeast that already exists in the vineyard
  2. Treat oak like salt, use as little as needed, not more – over-oaking kills more potentially good wines than any other factor that’s within the winemaker’s control. We don’t want to taste an oak stave, we want to taste the fruit with added complexity from the barrel. When possible, use older oak so the aroma is not as sharp.
  3. Avoid racking at all costs – do not disturb the wine. Top up as necessary but leave it alone until you plan on bottling.
  4. No fining or filtration – biodynamics can help here. Use natural techniques to clear out the wine. I’ll take some sediment and complexity over complete clarity and blandness any day.
  5. Minimal sulfer – as with the oak, use just as much as necessary, no more.
  6. Sell wine that’s ready to drink – many wines change over time and, depending on taste, can be enjoyable at various stages in its life. There are some wines however, that are mouth-puckering and so tannic and powerful upon release that they wouldn’t provide enjoyment to anyone other than a masochist. Be patient and sell a wine that’s ready to drink day 1.
  7. Be smart about storage and transportation – after spending immense amounts of time and money making a great wine, don’t ruin it by going cheap on the storage or transportation of the wine. Keep it cold, dark and humid.

As I think of more things I like in wine, I’ll amend this post. I don’t think people discuss these issues enough when they are at tastings or talking to sommeliers and winemakers. These should not be considered taboo or rude, but instead, a critical set of criteria to determine the method in making wine.

My simple way on rating and thinking about the wines I drink:

( ) no stars – bad wine, would not drink, flawed, gross.

* – table wine, easy drinking. Not particularly interesting or tasty but not flawed either.

** – a good effort, some complexity and noteworthy aspects but not enough to make it something you crave. For example, a wine may have a great bouquet but a disappointing mid palate and short finish. This wine doesn’t necessarily have to improve with age.

*** – a great effort with good balance. All parts of the wine, from the color, aroma, taste and finish should be delicious and interesting. This wine should change AND improve with time in the bottle, not just survive.

**** – a meditative wine. Something you taste and it makes you think and reflect. Incredible complexity that challenges our ability to describe the aromas and taste.

There is value in having a more granular scale like Parker’s 100 points or the British 20 point scale. For my purposes however, this is sufficient to make buying and consumption decisions.

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