"The practical art of connecting the human soul
to the soul of a place by rendering its grapes
into liquid music."
This sounds terribly precious, doesn't it? But believe it or not, this odd statement is nothing more than a precise, matter-of-fact description of our GrapeCraft way of working. Many observers of present day enology and particularly of so-called "wine technology" imagine that winemaking has now achieved the status of a science, as if we were daily engaged in an organized, ever expanding compilation of understanding of wine's nature and how wine functions.
Nothing could be further from the truth! Organized knowledge can be useful, but theories can also blind us to pure experience. Since much of the modern theoretical model of wine ignores key elements such as structure, and because our knowledge of ourselves is still so rudimentary, wine's behavior as a sensory experience remains utterly mysterious, to say nothing of its function as a mirror for the soul. In our post-modern view of winemaking therefore, we stress technique over theory, skill over modeling, intuition over deduction. The more we work with wine, the deeper its fundamental mysteries appear to emerge.
Winemaking is (and always has been) just a form of cooking. Like all chefs, winemakers seek to present the natural flavors characteristic of growing things raised up in living soil by dedicated farmers. All haut cuisine is the product of natural miracles at the farm and in the kitchen stewarded by practiced hands: the farmer and the chef. In the case of wine, the kitchen is the wine cave where the winemaker / chef shepherds the ultimate slow food with a calendar rather than a timer.
The goal of this level of cooking extends well beyond mere sustenance. We seek to touch the soul with pleasure born of profound connection to the land which occurs unexpectedly through discovery that places in our soul which we didn't know existed are touched by artisanal skill. Be it a great cheese, a delicious soup, or a fine wine, the experience of being so intimately known by another brings visceral pleasure which can instill lifelong passion.
To touch the soul in this way, the elements of a wine (or any other food) must be in harmony. Scientific enologists speak of this phenomenon as "balance" - sugar/acid balance, alcohol balance, and so forth. But it turns out that these harmonies do not occur in any predictable, linear fashion. The mind seems to perceive harmony in wine in a similar fashion to the perception of musical harmony. We all perceive musical instruments played without harmony (such as when an orchestra is tuning up prior to performance) as irritating cacophonous noise. This irritation is instantly replaced by the pleasure of induced emotional phrasing as the piece begins.
GrapeCraft practitioners employ the speculation that the mind processes sensory perception of wine in this same way. Cognitively, the difference between good wine and bad wine is the same as the difference between music and noise. And like music, the experience of exactly what is harmonious in wine is very strongly shared among all beings. Points of harmonious balance are referred to as "sweet spots." Just as with performing music, our precise shared sense of what touches us harmonically is the central mystery that makes winemaking possible.
Distinctive Terroir Expression
We don't know very much about why different growing environments result in different flavor signatures from one place to another, nor why the presence of a complex natural ecology emphasizes these differences in flavor expression. It is the winemaker's highest calling to present these flavors with a familiar grace which opens our receptivity and at the same time reveals an experience which is utterly unique. "Terroir" in this sense includes all aspects of soil and climate as well as the influences of human cultural practices. Just as pets seem to resemble their masters, the cultural attitudes of a region (generosity, austerity, openness, and so forth) often appear to be reflected in the grapes themselves and the wines which result. Perhaps the terroir shapes both - who knows? Like great literature, great wine transports us to another time and place.
Even the most minimalist of chefs recognizes the obligation to fashion the presentation of distinctive flavors such that the experience of them is accessible. In this way, cocoa beans, raw wheat, coffee beans, barley are transformed into chocolate, baked goods, coffee and beer. Even foods presented raw such as salads, sushi and carpaccio demand consummate skill to preserve their freshness and purity. Cooking is fundamentally interventionist. That's a very good and honorable thing as long as the Prime Directive of distinctive terroir expression is respected.
One tool for achieving finesse is the technique of microbüllage, or micro-oxygenation. This is what the Aztecs taught the Belgians concerning chocolate: how to transform cocoa powder (a harsh, nasty material) into dark chocolate, the most profound of foods, through the application of oxygen and butterfat. Patrick Ducournau of OenoDev in Madiran developed these ideas for wine tannins which many grapecrafters employ to create a rich fine structure - a tannin soufflé - which integrates aromatic expression through a stable structure which will not "curdle" or dry out over time, thus providing for graceful longevity.
Aromatic integration takes place in wines of refined, stable structure. Just as in a good bearnaise sauce, we do not perceive distinct aromas of tarragon, fresh onion, vinegar and mint but instead a rich "single voice," so the aromas of varietal vegativity, oak and microbial activity can be integrated into a good phenolic structure. The finer the colloids in such a structure, the more surface area will be available for aromatic integration.
Wines lacking good structure fail to incorporate these influences properly, and the resulting focus on eliminating specific defects has led to draconian control measures -- from excessive hangtime to sterile filtration -- which produce wines of less interest. When these measures become incorporated into a general winery protocol, they harm the development of its wines generally.
The GrapeCraft approach is to focus on the structure of the whole wine. When grapes grown in living soil and harvested at proper maturity are transformed into balanced wines of finesse and vigor, individual aromatic attributes present themselves in support to the unified whole and become integrated into the personality of a unique terroir signature.
An aspect of wine which Scientific Enology has not yet explored in very much depth is that of reductive energy. We all know that wines oxidize, and become old and misshapen just as people do. Instead of wrinkles and poor memories, wines acquire brown color, dry tannins and flavors resembling vinegar, sherry or rancid oil. Like people, wines healthy in their youth last longer and acquire interesting aspects with age.
We refer to this youthful energy as "reductive strength." In youth, testosterone confers pimples and a tendency to misbehave. Likewise, youthful energy in wine causes its fruity aromas to be closed or "zipped up" and sometimes brings about production of sulfur aromatics such as H2S (rotten eggs) and mercaptans (onion, diesel, canned asparagus) which further mask fruitiness and exacerbate vegetal aromas such as bell pepper, ortega chilies or turnip.
Besides the resolution of tannin aggressivity, an important reason to barrel age big reds is to allow their reductive strength to come into balance, and the proper moment to bottle is one of the winemaker's most important decisions. But emerging practices such as hangtime, oxygenation, organic growing practices, lees batônage, oak alternatives and new types of closures disturb the conventional arithmetic.
Several trends in winemaking are forcing winemakers to focus on the reductive drama despite the absence of useful scientific studies. The advent of screwcaps and other non-breathing closures to replace corks (to avoid their occasional moldy aromas) has led to reductive qualities in wines which were supposed to be ready for consumption. Conversely, expensive wines intended for long ageing which employed extended maturity in order to concentrate flavors have ended up spoiling early in the cellars of wealthy collectors.
GrapeCraft advocates the incorporation of living soil practices in the vineyard and also often employs micro-oxygenation and yeast lees incorporation to build and refine structure. These techniques are best utilized on grapes of moderate ripeness, and their action increases (odd as that may seem) reductive properties rather than contributing to oxidation. Thus mastery of reductive strength and the ability to propose a strategy for bringing youthful vigor into balance is a critical skill in postmodern winemaking.
In doing so, the shortcut of copper addition to react up sulfites is frowned upon, because this chemical is an oxidative catalyst which interferes with the wine's natural immune system. The cautious and skillful introduction of oxygen is a preferred technique.
If winemaking is a branch of cooking, what are its goals? Scientific enology's approach to this question has produced the Aroma Wheel and the concept of varietal character. The idea of taking wine to pieces is opposed in the article Does U.C. Davis Have a Theory of Deliciousness? Varietal character, particularly the distinctive expression of it in distinctive vineyard sites and presented with balanced sugar/acid and alcohol levels, does seem to encompass the goals of simple fresh white wines of the modern style. Yet the observation that "a wine's first duty is to be red" has many adherents, because mature red wines at their best provide something quite beyond purity and freshness.
The goal of GrapeCraft is to touch the human soul. The price of a great wine could never be justified on any other basis. Jell-O has varietal character, for Pete's sake, and so do natural fruit juices. Our work is that of a symphony orchestra director, to marry diverse elements into so integrated a single voice that the consumer will be pleased with the purchase, actually glad to have spent two or three hours taking in an experience which touches profoundly.
The viscera comprises the connective tissue holding our bodies together, and our deepest emotions are expressed here by a tightening of the chest, back and abdomen reflects passionate grief or ecstasy. When the muscles around the eyes contract and the exclamation "Mmm!" is evoked, we've met our goal. Another expression of viscerality sometimes induced upon sniffing the heady aroma of great wine is a feeling of falling similar to that resulting from pressing the "Down" button on a fast elevator.
A common, though by no means universal attribute of well-structured visceral wines is their ability to improve with age and to remain alive and sound for longer periods than corresponding wines made with less skill.
This does not always mean unpleasantness in the wine's youth. While good reductive strength cautions patience, wines of finesse, even very big reds, can be quite enjoyable throughout their very long lives. Micro-oxygenation, for example, transforms harsh, coarse tannins into fine colloids which despite significant grippiness are often found to be much more pleasant. When high quantities of active anthocyanins are incorporated, this refined structure is extremely stable and does not polymerize further, thus preventing tannin precipitation, dryness and oxidation. In fact, proper treatment with oxygen actually increases reductive strength through the mechanism discovered by Singleton.
A simple and reasonably dependable test of longevity is to breathe a half consumed bottle for a period of days. Each day after which the wine maintains or improves bodes for about five years of cellar potential.