Sorry for the short hiatus, I needed a little break. I ran (walked) the Rugged Maniac 5k this past weekend and had a lot of events last week, but I’m back now and ready for action!
So, over the last few months we’ve talked about all of the aspects that determine the appearance of wine and food, how they are created, what they can and cannot tell us about the things we ingest, and why any of that matters. Next, we are going to get into how things smell and all of the scientific, artistic and personal aspects of the nose, but not today. Before we dive full on back into science I wanted to talk a bit about production styles, and trends in wine. (I realize this is kind of a massive topic, and it is close to my heart, but I will try not to drone on too much.)
Just like any other cultural aspect of our modern global community, wine and wine appreciation go through phases and trends. It is also defined by stylistic preferences and the creator’s discretion. Sometimes a wine or style can gain fame as a “fad”, only popular for a short amount of time and then gone like a bad yo-yo diet scheme.Other trends are determined by seasonal shifts, like drinkers shedding their heavy red wines like winter sweaters in favor of light crisp whites for spring and summer. There are plenty of myths out there regarding wine styles; ie, only women drink white wines or roses, or that pink wines are always sweet, and we have touched on a few of these already. These myths exist to push wine sales in different directions, to open markets to shy drinkers who like to stick with what they have, and to continue silly stereotypes. None of these speak to what is truly the most important aspect in the history of wine creation, the art of turning something simple and innocent into a beautiful, intrinsic work of artistic expression.
“Wine is sunlight, held together by water.” – Galileo Galile
I certainly believe that all wine is art, but like art, some wines can present as complex and interesting to one drinker, while appearing over the top or boring to another. Some of this is based on trends, while the rest is purely personal preferences, and, just like art, these difference effect wines from materials, to methods, to how the wine is enjoyed.
There are over 10,000 known wine grape varietals in the world. That is a massive amount of raw materials for winemakers to choose from. Some of these varietals are man-made, having been grafted on to other root stock, where as others occurred naturally through years of evolution and cross pollination. Some varietals only grow in one small micro-region (like the Russian River Valley in Napa, CA), while others have been planted world wide (see Cabernet Sauvignon), and still others have been thought to be the same varietal only to later be determined to be completely unrelated grapes (see Argentinian Bonarda and Italian Bonardo). Grapes are a very complicated and varied product, whose popularity depends on the region where they are being sold and produced. Region plays a big part of varietal popularity, as well. Certain styles become synonymous with a region (see Champagne, or Chablis, or any french region really), while other regions are almost unknown in the wine world (Arizona makes beautiful, robust red wines). People, myself included, often get excited to try things from regions they know produce good products, but they are often less excited to try things they’ve never heard of before. To this I say, “step out of your comfort zones people and give new and emerging wine regions a chance”!
A large part of why certain regions are popular starts at the root, of the vine that is. Farming methods and technologies new and old, are the trade tools of wine making, and they are effected by trends as much as any other aspect. As new methods and technologies become available they are incorporated in to viticulture and tested against the productivity of older methods. Some times the newer methods payout in higher production with a lower costs and minimal effect to the quality of the wine, other times those that are more tried and true win out. Often, viticulturists, the men and women caring for the vines, choose the older method simply because it is traditional, and tradition is still closely tied to the heart of the wine industry. This can include the choice to use pesticides or chemical fertilizers, how irrigation is handled, and how the grapes are cared for during early spring and late fall when the evenings and early mornings threaten frost. Whatever the choice, it is always close to the growers heart and has an impact on the outcome of the quality of the wines.
Just recently, we heard a lot of talk about arsenic in wines, and I posited, that some of this could come from chemical fertilizers or pesticides used on the vines or on the soil of the surrounding areas. Now, this is just one way that wines can be affected by viticulture choices, and, as far as we know, it makes no noticeable difference in the quality of the wine or its taste. Others, like pruning and trellising, can have a direct and measurable impact on the output of the vines and the quality of the wine in the bottle.
Finally, harvesting decisions. When you harvest, down to the hour and time of day, has a huge impact on the amount of natural sugars in the grapes, the alcohol potential of the wine, and definitely impacts the product. Also, how you harvest the grapes can effect the final product. Some vineyards harvest and sort mechanically, trusting machines to collect and deposit only grapes into vats for crushing. This method runs the risk of including extras, like over ripe or rotten fruit, or even birds, and bugs, if the wine makers aren’t careful. Other vineyards opt for a more traditional approach of handpicking their grapes, only choosing those that are perfectly ripe and allowing the others to fall where they are, to fertilize the soil.
There are ton’s of other stylistic choices that directly effect the flavor profile and quality of the wine. Obviously I can’t go into detail on all of these today, but hopefully I will be able to give examples of all of them at some point in the future. Some of these include; using natural yeasts versus adding yeasts, fermenting in stainless steel vs oak, what type of oak the wine is aged in (if at all), whether or not the wine if fined, filtered, or blended. Winemakers can choose to allow the wine to completely ferment, or to stop the fermentation to increase sugar levels, or to add sugar after the fact. They can also use a variety of methods to alter the concentration of the extracts, sugars, and alcohols. Every decision a vineyard makes in regard to its wines is an effort to design the final product in the bottle to fit certain trends, including the graphics and style of the label, while remaining true to their vision.
Unfortunately, the world doesn’t just view wine as art, it is art that is meant to sell.
After even my few years of working in the wine industry, I can’t not think of wine as art. Hours of conversations with wine makers, enthusiasts, newbies, and whoever else I’ve run into in the community, it becomes hard to think any other way. When I take into consideration the combination of science, skill, luck, and creativity that goes into every bottle, I feel honored to get to enjoy each glass I sample. Now, working from the sales side of wine, and being forced to compete with low priced, and often low quality wines, occasionally my heart aches. Trends are not inherently a negative thing, they open windows for people to try new things, and for new wines or wares to get their moment in the spotlight, and I am all for that. And, I have learned a ton about these trends and how they push the market, which I find very interesting. But, even knowing that it is the way of the world, it makes me sad to see the bold, charismatic reds pushed aside, or fantastic, but unheard of whites continue to go un-imbibed next to the sold out section of quantity over quality whites.
Tune in later this week when I try to show how some of the stylistic choices of the viticulture persuasion make a difference in wine flavor. Also, I plan to cover this topic a bit at a time as a break from the full on science aspects that I’m focusing on with the WSET guidelines. So, look for the tag Wine as Art to find more posts like this one.