Tuesday, February 10, 2009

In the Cellar

Last week at the Salon des Vins de Loire I tasted with Anthony Hwang of Domaine Huet in Vouvray, and he mentioned how winemaker Noël Pinguet has been experimenting with different techniques of pressing in order to obtain a higher-quality juice. Hwang said, “I’ve come to realize over the past few years with Noël that what winemakers always like to say, that wine is 95 percent made in the vineyards and five percent in the cellar, is really bunk. The pressing is so important, as is attention to detail throughout the cellar.”

I liked this statement, as I’ve also thought that cellar work is sometimes not emphasized as much as it should be. There’s no question that quality originates in the vineyard, and when a winegrower says that he or she cannot improve upon the quality of the grapes that are harvested, that is a true statement. People should obsess over viticulture, and I’m glad that they do. (Remember, I live in Champagne. We need as many people thinking about viticulture as possible in that region.) It’s also true that wine that ignores viticulture and is made largely in a winery (think of some mass-market champagnes or industrial brands from California and Australia) is lifeless and uninteresting to drink.

But sometimes I feel that it’s become unfashionable to talk about vinification, as if any action somehow automatically constitutes manipulation or spoofulation of the wine. Oftentimes you’ll hear winegrowers talk on and on about viticulture and then say, “After harvest, I do nothing.” (Of course, with some natural wines, this is quite literally true, with unfortunate consequences.)

I do think that a great wine is a combination of high-quality viticulture and diligent work in the cellars, and one without the other tends to yield less than satisfactory results. Wine, after all, doesn’t happen on its own—it’s a process of deliberate choices and actions by humans that guide the wine towards its final state of being. No matter how “natural” and “non-interventionist” you say you are, there is a certain minimum of human action and intervention that needs to take place, or it’s not wine. Grapes left completely to their own devices will turn into something that you would likely not want to drink. As a wine producer, you make decisions at every step of the way, and these decisions generally result in some sort of action. (Although even a decision to do nothing is still a decision.) Clearly some decisions are better than others, depending on the individual wine and the surrounding circumstances, and if two winemakers received identical lots of grapes, the one who made the better decisions would create the better wine. Even if you cannot improve upon the quality that Nature gives you in the vineyards, it’s up to you to maintain that level of quality. As Hwang puts it, “It’s true that you can’t make good wines from bad grapes. But I’ve had many bad wines from good grapes.”


Henri Vasnier said...

Bruno d'Alfonso, certainly not a proponent of the "we do nothing" school of winemaking, spoke to us at a tasting several years ago. He said (I'm paraphrasing) that even in the most perfect weather year, when we have to do the least work in the vineyard, we touch every vine 12-16 times before the grapes get picked, and every touch is an intervention of some sort, so what's all the talk about "non-interventionist" winemaking?

The quality of the winemaking shows in marginal vintages. Most everybody makes good wine in great vintages, when the weather's been great during the growing season. But when the weather has been iffy and there are some issues with the quality of the grapes coming in the winery door, such that things can go wrong during vinification and elevage, great winemakers manage to produce fine wine anyhow, whereas mediocre winemakers ... don't. This is a major reason why producer is more important than vintage in Burgundy.

Dan Melia said...

A very welcome post, Peter, and a line of logic that I wish people would consider with food as well. Lately the idea has emerged (hardening into dogma, I fear) that to in any way manipulate or lay hands upon any seasonal, local, organic product is to violate its integrity. What that means is that too many restaurants seem to be overly keen on assembling and less interested in cooking. Don't get me wrong: I don't want twelve people's hands on my food, I don't want it to be precious, I do want it to be delicious and identifiable and taste deeply of what it is. But I also want a cook to cook, to embrace the wide and noble range of what that noun and verb might mean. Treating an ingredient with respect does not require leaving it alone.

Also: nice to see a (potentially subconscious) paraphrase/embrace of a classic Rush lyric: "If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice." (Best sung in Getty Lee falsetto.)

Jim Budd said...

Completely agree Peter and good, intelligent have to make a whole set of different decisions each vintage because every year is different.

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