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Nose to Nose: The debate over high-tech wine

By Craig Camp

Monday, November 10, 2003

THEY ARE nose-to-nose and the sparks are flying. The argument has gone on for the better part of two days. What started out as an intellectual debate has dissolved into exchanges of not-so-subtle insults. Luckily, the combatants are mouse-to-mouse instead of face-to-face. It started out simply enough when one of them declared Domenico Clerico (the famed Barolo producer) a genius. However, the other guy took exception to this as he is convinced that Clerico and people who think like him are destroying one of the world's great wines. The battle between old and new never ends.

Winemakers love to promote the idea that they are simple farmers. Romantic images and bucolic country scenes of happy grape pickers, hillside vineyards, and dusty bottles in old cellars are featured in all the brochures. However, if they were more honest the pictures would be of roto-fermenters, reverse osmosis equipment, and the oxygen tanks for micro-oxygenation.

Are the new-style wines better or are they blinding us with science? Why do wines taste so different now than they did twenty years ago?

First of all, there's little agreement about what's right and what's wrong. Hi-tech equipment like reverse osmosis systems can be found in giant commercial Australian wineries and small Burgundy domaines. What one winemaker swears by is anathema to another. The wine media confuse the situation further by railing against high-tech winemaking and then promptly rewarding, with the highest scores, those who make wines by those methods.

Contrary to the quiet country gentleman image most wine producers like to project, those from the most famous wine making districts are usually savvy and experienced business people. They know all too well how to take market research and translate that data into a product that sells. In Hollywood they have tours past the homes of the stars: in Napa they could have tours past the homes of past and present Fortune 500 CEO's -- people who understand the positive results you can get by providing people with pleasure easily attained. Bordeaux and Tuscany have become equally corporate and other great vineyard regions are not far behind. It should be no shock that wines produced in Napa, Maremma, and Pomerol can be difficult to tell apart -- the owners belong to the same vinous country club.

So, why do so many wines taste the same? It's simple: too many winemakers make it in the same way using technology to overwhelm vintage, variety, and terroir (the taste the specific vineyard microclimate gives the wine).

Just as the Vatican is the center of Catholicism, Australia has become the center of the religion of high-tech winemaking. For an example of pure high-tech, just taste the red wine lineup of the well-known winery Rosemount. The portfolio includes cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and shiraz, but the differences in the flavors and textures of these wines is insignificant and, in fact, they are basically interchangeable. The different varietals only exist for marketing purposes. Each of them is made according to a recipe that will appeal to the lowest common denominator, and the result is essentially the same wine in different bottles with different names. Australia may be the holy see of this kind of winemaking, but Bordeaux, Tuscany, the USA, and South America are right there with them -- and the rest of France, Italy, and Spain are trying as fast as they can to become Cardinals. One real danger of all this technology is that as flavors become more standardized, many less popular grape varieties could become even more unimportant because they don't fit well into the grand marketing scheme. Why make a gamay that tastes just like your pinot noir that tastes more or less like your syrah.

Here's a look at some of the winemaker's bag of tricks:

-Roto-fermenters: just like it sounds, these are fermenters that rotate during the fermentation of red wines so there's a more continuous and even interaction between the grape skins and the fermenting grape juice. In standard fermentation tanks the skins form a hard "cap" floating at the top of the tank which has to be "punched down" back into the juice to be sure that color and other components are extracted from the skins. More modern methods include "pumping over," which means simply that: gently pumping the fermenting juice over the cap of grape skins at the top of the tank. Supporters point to quicker color extraction and softer tannins, but detractors complain of over-extraction of obvious flavors and under-extraction of subtle flavors that add complexity.

-Micro-oxygenation: the extremely slow release of tiny (micro) amounts of pure oxygen through wine. Proponents note rounder mouthfeel, better color and reduced vegetal characteristics. This new technique was introduced in 1991 in France. Critics claim it strips the wine of individual personality and texture. The truth about micro-oxygenation is that it is still a concept in its early stages of development with techniques constantly being adjusted and no one is sure about the future. Most of the people making wine with this method are not worried about the future as they want wines than can be consumed immediately.

-Reverse Osmosis and Must Concentrators: an ultra-fine filter that allows liquids -- water, acid, or alcohol -- to pass through, but will retain color and flavor components. You might remember the principle of osmosis from high school chemistry and biology. That is where if you sleep on your book during class the information will somehow pass to your brain. If reverse osmosis has occurred and you have forgotten, basically if you put pure water and wine at the same pressure separated by a semi-permeable membrane, water will flow across the membrane from the water side (more concentrated in water) to the wine side (less concentrated in water). Though this is not what you want in winemaking the principle is useful. The trick is to increase the pressure on the wine side, which reverses the flow. Too much rain during harvest: no problem, filter it out. Overripe grapes giving you too much alcohol: no problem, just filter it out. Too much acetic acid: no problem, just filter it out. This technology can be applied before or after fermentation and if used before fermentation is known as must concentration. As the equipment is expensive this technology is more common among large wineries or producers that can charge super-premium prices. It has become popular among top Chateaux in Bordeaux. Seemingly a winemaker's dream, reverse osmosis has become the most hated of the new techniques by traditionalists.

All of these can be applied with good result in certain circumstances. Contrary to the cookie-cutter results achieved by corporate winemaking, like you see at Rosemount, Antinori, Latour, and Rutherford Hill, some of these techniques and others are being applied with success (okay, controversial success) by top winemakers throughout the world.

Perhaps the biodynamics movement in winemaking can be seen as a backlash against these innovations by some producers as they take on an anti-techno attitude to differentiate their wines and to reflect their belief in wine as a natural product as compared to an industrial one. The wines they produce are bound to create debate when contrasted against highly manipulated ones. To point out yet another contrast between organic and biodynamics, most of the technical manipulations mentioned above would be completely in accordance with organic requirements.

Not so many years ago the debate focused on chaptalization (adding sugar before fermentation) and acidification. There was not much more winemakers could do besides choose what age barrels to use from what forest. The French looked down their noses at the Californians because they added acid to their wines and the Californians complained that the French cheated by adding sugar. However, as much as people argued about this point, it is clear that great wines were made in both places by a few passionate winemakers who knew how to employ these methods with just the right touch. It would seem logical that we could expect the same results from these new technologies.

Wine is a part of our history and it has always changed with the times. Jazz no longer sounds like it did in the days of Louis Armstrong, but it is still a powerful art. Baseball has changed from the days of Babe Ruth, but it is still extraordinarily entertaining. Wine, which combines both art and entertainment (an appropriate if not often accomplished match), is no different.

There are always a few who can innovate intelligently. Most use technical innovation to make more money: making wine trying only to never offend that will avoid more than a perfunctory swirl and sniff. Yet there are always a dedicated few that are trying to open new horizons. It takes a keen eye and an open mind to appreciate art that is pushing the envelope.

The arguments are sure to continue: fun, huh?