Recently two movies were made about wine. Many people will remember the humorous, bad-boy buddy movie, “Sideways” with two friends trampling the Santa Barbara wine country on the outside ledge of morality.
The other was “Mondovino,” a much more serious documentary concerned with the changing face of wine in the modern world.
Mondovino pinpointed the difference between artisan winemakers striving to produce individual wines unique to their region vs. the homogenizing effect of the globalization of wine by multi-national corporations.
Is modern technology changing wine? Wine has a cultivated image of the little old winemaker, cobwebby cellars, old wooden barrels and a large vat where grapes are crushed by foot allowing the mysteries of the vine to take charge, creating the nectar of the Gods.
There certainly were tricks to the trade of being a little old winemaker but generally a European winegrower of the 1850s knew no more about the scientific principles involved in winemaking than did ancient Greeks.
When Louis Pasteur unlocked the complexity of fermentation in 1857, he unraveled wine’s major mystery.
The next major advance came a hundred years after Pasteur’s discoveries with the introduction of stainless steel tanks and refrigeration to the wine cellar.
Sanitation took a quantum leap forward and suddenly winemakers could control the temperature of their fermentations, especially with white wines. Cooler fermentation temperatures produced cleaner, fruitier and fresher tasting wines.
The University of California, Davis was instrumental in leading not only California but eventually the wine-producing world into the modern era with its mantra of refrigeration and sanitation.
As with much of modern life, the old alchemy of winemaking has been replaced with the new scientific rational of “we can fix that.” In the movie “Mondovino,” Michel Rolland, a world-famous wine consultant was made out to be one of the bad guys. Rolland consults for more than 100 wineries in 12 countries.
Proponents praise his ability to improve wine quality. Critics claim he destroys diversity, homogenizing the flavors of wines. In the movie he refers to the term “micro-oxygenation” as a solution to several wineries he visits while the camera trails after him.
What is micro-oxygenation and what does it do? I asked Steve Burch, local winemaker and owner of Burch Hall Winery about the new intrusion of modern technology into the pastoral realm of the little old winemaker.
What is the story about reverse osmosis, rotary fermenters, designer yeasts and enzymes? Are these good things?
Steve was very clear to explain that the source of all good wine is excellent quality grapes. “It’s a natural process.
If you have quality grapes and sound fermentation techniques, then a minimalist approach works fine. But we’re impatient as wine drinkers.
These days we expect wines, even full-bodied, robust style wines, to be ready to drink upon their release. We no longer want to wait years for wines to develop in the bottle. Many of the modern techniques are designed to speed up the maturation process. “
It starts in the vineyard. Historically winegrowers harvested on a level of sugar ripeness but now recognize that grapes can be sugar-ripe before the tannins are mature. Leaf pulling, crop thinning and water application can be effective tools affecting tannin maturity.
Once the grapes were in the winery, traditional open-topped fermentation tanks required that the floating cap of grape skins be “punched down” regularly to ensure good color and flavor extraction.
Rotary fermenters are tanks that rotate during fermentation so that the juice and skins of red grapes are in constant contact allowing for quicker color extraction and softer tannins.
Traditionalists complain of over-extraction of obvious flavors and under-extraction of more subtle, complex flavors.
Micro-oxygenation was a process developed in France in the early 1990s to soften the tannins of red wines. It involves the release of small (micro) amounts of oxygen through the wine.
It replicates quickly in a large tank what happens slowly to a red wine aging in a barrel. Proponents claim it produces wines with softer tannins and a more rounded mouthfeel. Traditionalists claim it ages the wine prematurely.
Fining agents are nothing new to winemaking. Agents like bentonite, gelatin or egg whites have always been used to achieve clarity and wine stability. What is new are winemaker’s use of designer yeasts and enzymes. Historically the natural yeast on the grapes kick started fermentation.
A recent glance at a yeast catalogue detailed more than 100 choices offering yeasts that tolerate cold fermentation temperatures, or give tropical or floral fruit aromas, or ferment to 16 percent alcohol and maintain structure and color when long aging is planned.
If you’ve got the grapes, they’ve got yeast for you. Along with the yeasts come nutrient additives insuring your yeast stays healthy.
Enzymes are now used to enhance juice yield and color, fight bacteria, control malo-lactic fermentation, reduce reliance on sulfites and increase the aromatics of a wine. Can you make wine without them? Absolutely! Can they help? Absolutely!
Oak has undergone a revolution recently as well. Questions concerning oak used to be about the size or age of the barrel and where it was from. Now oak comes in powder, chips, cubes, balls and inner staves. Generally the smaller the form of oak the cheaper it is and the more it stands out as an added flavor rather than an integrated, harmonious flavor. A $5 wine with a pronounced oak flavor probably never saw the inside of a wine barrel.
Modern presses and pumps are gentler as well, extracting less harsh or bitter flavors as the wine is moved around the winery. But there is probably nothing more controversial right now in winemaking than the use of reverse osmosis. They are super fine filters that allow water, acid or alcohol to pass through while retaining the color and flavor elements of the wine.
If you picked your grapes super ripe because you wanted soft, mature tannins and the resulting wine is too high in alcohol, you can filter some out. When reverse osmosis is applied before fermentation it is called “must concentration.” If it rained at harvest diluting your grapes you can filter out some water. If you have too much volatile acidity in your wine, you can take that out as well. Reverse osmosis is guaranteed to make any traditionalist lose sleep.
The irony is that we often criticize these new techniques while praising the wines that are the results of them.
I asked Steve if he thought any of this was phony winemaking? He was quick to reply “No. A far greater danger is falling into the pattern of always doing everything the same way. Every situation is a little different and requires a different approach. I will do whatever I can to make the best wine I can. The latest, greatest technology is often expensive and unnecessary but I’ll use it if it can be helpful.”
Where we see the greatest advance in winemaking is not at the high end of the market, although those wineries are making plenty of use of new technology, but at the low end. Everyday table wine has never been better. But the quality of the grapes is still the overwhelming factor affecting the quality of the wine. Access to good grapes is still more important than access to technology.
One final note: For the latest and greatest in local wine and food check out the Winter Wine and Food Celebration tomorrow night at the Fairgrounds. Sponsored by the Nevada County Winery Association, nine wineries and nine restaurants are putting on a dinner and a dance. Call your favorite winery for details. Don’t for get the Foothill Wine Celebration Tasting in downtown Grass Valley on Saturday. Call 272-8315 for ticket information.
Rod Byers is director of marketing at Nevada City Winery, is a CSW certified wine educator, teaches wine classes at Sierra College and is a California State Certified Wine Judge. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 530-913-3703.
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