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NEW WAYS OF COPING WITH ARCTIC WINTERS

geotextiles
Photo credit: Domaine St. Jacques, Québec

 – As published on www.jancisrobinson.com on Aug. 28th 2018 – 

As the leaves fall from the vines in November, the annual race against the clock begins in the cooler reaches of the Northern Hemisphere. In Ningxia, China, vineyard workers at Pernod Ricard’s Helan Mountain Winery begin the arduous process of laying down canes for winter burial. Wind machines are readied for their winter vigil at Southbrook Vineyards on the Niagara Peninsula of Ontario. Meanwhile, at Domaine St. Jacques in Québec, a tractor appears in the vine row equipped with twin, overhead rolls of white fabric.

“Cold hardiness is the main limiting factor for growing grapes in many regions across North America, and beyond”, affirms Dr. Jim Willwerth, Senior Viticultural Scientist at Brock University’s Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute (CCOVI). And yet, despite the challenges posed by icy winters, new vineyards continue to emerge in some of the chilliest corners of the planet.

The ever-increasing frequency of extreme heat and drought in many traditional vineyard regions is driving wine grape growers to seek out cooler climates. Thanks, in part, to this pattern of global warming, areas once considered too cold to successfully grow Vitis vinifera grapevines are flourishing.

“Cold hardiness is the main limiting factor for growing grapes in many regions across North America, and beyond”

The Niagara Peninsula is just one such example. Thomas Bachelder, winemaker in Oregon, Burgundy, coastal Chile, and Niagara, is convinced of the region’s vast potential. “We have the degree days, and complex limestone-rich soils”, explains Bachelder. “Niagara Chardonnay is elegant; racy, mineral and floral, with a solid core of rich dry extract”, he adds.

However, while temperatures may be milder on average in many marginal regions, climate change is also bringing more erratic weather patterns and greater extremes. In northerly, continental areas this means more vicious cold spells. The Vitis vinifera grape vine is not winter hardy. According to Dr. Willwerth, temperatures below -15°c can lead to loss of fruiting buds and damage to stem tissues. Winter injuries to grapevines create opportunities for infection and can lead to the development of Crown Gall disease. When the thermostat lingers below -25°c it can kill vines outright.

Because of this, cold hardy hybrid varieties are the preferred cultivars in many wintry regions. Lerkekåsa Vineyard in Norway focuses mainly on ungrafted hybrids like Hasanski sladki and Solaris. In Northern China, breeding programs have long centred on the Vitis amurensis grape species that can withstand temperatures of -40°c. In Québec and the Midwestern United States, resistant varieties such as Marquette and Frontenac are common.

…while temperatures may be milder on average in many marginal regions, climate change is also bringing more erratic weather patterns and greater extremes.

Critical success on an international level remains elusive for hybrid grape wines however. Consumers and professionals alike still maintain that Vitis vinifera is the only grapevine species qualitative enough for fine wine production. Regardless of limiting factors, the majority of growers continue to prize vinifera plantings above all others. And while they accept that some loss of fruiting buds is the price to pay for growing Vinifera in cold climates, they are increasingly looking for more effective solutions to keep these casualties to a minimum and prolong the lifespan of their vines.

The most important defense against winter injury lies in the initial grape variety and site pairing as different cultivars have varying degrees of cold hardiness. Vines must also be adequately prepared for the dormant period. Over cropping is found to reduce winter hardiness. “Managing vigour and crop level is key to ensure that we harvest at optimal maturity, at a reasonable time in the fall”, explains Southbrook’s Winemaking Consultant Ann Sperling. The vine requires time to build up sufficient reserves in its trunk and canes to resist cold temperatures.

Yet even vines in good health, with adequate stores, require additional protection to withstand deep freezes. These measures vary from one region to another, depending on the severity of winter temperatures, vineyard size, budget, available labour, and so forth.

The most important defense against winter injury lies in the initial grape variety and site pairing. Yet even vines in good health, with adequate stores, require additional protection to withstand deep freezes.

In regions where temperatures sub -15°c are a rare occurrence, wind machines are common. CCOVI estimates that half of Ontario’s vineyards are equipped with wind machines. These large fans can bring a 2 to 3-degree temperature increase around the fruiting zone. They have a number of shortcomings however. “At wind speeds of 8km/hr or higher wind machines are useless. The inversion layer doesn’t form”, says Sperling. “Their mechanisms are also easily damaged by wind”, she adds. The cost is prohibitive for many small growers. Tom Higgins of Heart & Hands Wine Company in the Finger Lakes region of New York estimates the price per fan at 50 000$ USD, with each unit covering 4 to 6 hectares.

To help growers use fans (and other cold protection methods) more effectively, scientists at CCOVI have created a bud cold hardiness monitoring program called Vine Alert. The system tracks a multitude of different cultivars, from vineyard plots all across Ontario, throughout the dormant period, sending alerts to growers when dangerous cold spells are forecasted. Similar such programs exist in British Columbia’s Okanagan and Similkameen valleys.

Where winter lows regularly plunge to -25°c or less, more dramatic actions are necessary. The most popular technique world-wide is to bury vines deep under the soil. While this method effectively protects vines against freezing temperatures it carries many risks. The process of laying down and uncovering the vines damages the vines and increases the potential for diseases entering cracks or trunk wounds. According to Helan Mountain Operations Manager, Mike Insley it is also “incredibly labour intensive and expensive”. Insley estimates that one third of the winery’s labour budget is spent covering and uncovering the vines.

Burying vines is an effective technique against freezing temperatures yet it carries many risks.

Photo credit: Helan Mountain Winery, Ningxia, China

The decision of when to unearth the vines is also fraught. Exposing the vine to the elements in early spring means earlier bud break and a longer growing season yet leaves the vine defenceless against spring frost. At Hinterland Winery in Prince Edward County, Ontario the team waits until late May, after the risk of frost has passed. This brings its own set of challenges. “We lose a month of the growing season”, says owner Vicki Samaras. “There is a risk of bud rot if the soils are moist”, she goes on to explain, “and, worst of all, you can hear the buds popping off as you pull the canes from the soil”.

From China to Russia and through out Canada, vine burial practioners are vocal in their frustration, yet committed to continue. “Why do we persist in the face of all of these disadvantages?” asks Insley, “Simple, we can’t grow vinifera varieties without winter protection”. Insley believes that the growing season conditions and subsequent high quality of wines produced in Ningxia is worth the effort.

In certain areas, alternate solutions are slowly gaining traction. Yvan Quirion, proprietor of Domaine St. Jacques, began experimenting with geotextiles on his estate in 2006. The results were so compelling that he now covers his entire 23-hectare property. Quirion trains his vines 30cm from the ground to capture ambient heat from the earth. He does an initial Cordon de Royat pruning, and then uses a tractor to drape geotextiles over the trellis in a tent-like fashion, securing the base of the fabric to the ground. Quirion says he can cover 20 kilometres in a day; winterizing the entire estate in less than a week. With careful maintenance, he has managed to re-use many of his geotextiles for going on 10 years.

Domaine St. Jacques began experimenting with geotextiles in 2006. The results were so compelling that they now covers their entire 23-hectare property.

Despite many bitter winters, Quirion claims he has only incurred notable bud damage once, in January 2018, when the longest cold streak ever recorded struck the region. Even then, Quirion estimates a mere 10 – 15% loss of fruiting buds. Adamo Estate Winery in Hockley Valley, Ontario was also struck with similar temperatures, and the vines under geotextiles faired well. Only the Merlot grapes suffered bud damage.

Trials at Hinterland Winery began in 2018. “We saw a 33% increase in yield this year”, enthuses Samaras. Vines were uncovered a full month earlier than usual allowing for earlier, more uniform bud break. By bundling the geotextiles up on the topmost wire above the fruiting zone, they were able to keep them at the ready in the event of spring frost.

Adamo Estate began testing geotextiles in 2015, in partnership with CCOVI. After three years, winemaker Shauna White deems the results “phenomenal”. “The buried canes were much darker and less vibrant”, she asserts. “Under the blankets, they are brighter and healthier looking.” White also enthused about the increased crop load. In 2017, a geotextile-covered Pinot Noir plot half the size of a neighbouring, buried vine plot gave the same quantity of wine.

Adamo Estate began testing geotextiles in 2015, in partnership with CCOVI. After three years, winemaker Shauna White deems the results “phenomenal”. 

The use of geotextiles has even allowed Hinterland Winery to farm organically for the first time. “There is a lot of fungal disease in Ontario, much of which originates from the soil”, explains Samaras. “When you bury vines, you are obliged to train the vines low to the ground. Using geotextiles, we have raised the fruiting zone by 15cm”.

Geotextiles are not a perfect solution for all estates however. According to Mike Insley, they aren’t a viable option for Helan Mountain Winery. “Covers are potentially problematic on large-scale vineyards – a vineyard with a 3m row spacing would require 3333m of row covering for each hectare. That’s a lot to purchase, store, and apply”. Concerns about cost, storage, and unease with application methods seem to be the major obstacles to greater adoption by growers.

At Heart & Hands Wine Company, Tom Higgins is taking another approach. He has devised an automated heating system to protect against icy temperatures. Heating tape, more commonly used in roof de-icing, is permanently attached to the fruiting wire and then wrapped in plumbing tube insulation over winter. Temperature probes inside the insulation are triggered to activate the heating tape at -17°c, and to turn it off at approximately -13°c. The system can also be used to ward off spring frost, using higher temperature settings. “For every 100 feet of grape vine, it takes me 20 minutes to apply the insulation, and 10 minutes to remove it”, claims Higgins.

At Heart & Hands Wine Company, heating tape is permanently attached to the fruiting wire and then wrapped in plumbing tube insulation over winter.

Photo credit: Heart & Hands Wine Company, Finger Lakes, New York

The ease of use and relative affordability of his plan is a major part of its appeal. Higgins received a Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education grant from the United States Department of Agriculture to pursue his research. Initial results are inconclusive after a relatively mild first winter of use, but Higgins is confident that the long-term benefits will be tremendous.

Times and techniques are definitely changing. Cool climate vineyards are gaining in prominence around the globe. Rising temperatures have rendered many wintry regions more hospitable for vinifera grape varieties. However, the increase in extreme weather events in these areas is making effective freeze protection strategies more and more vital. While wind machines and vine burial have proven effective in certain conditions, both methods have significant drawbacks. The advent of recent techniques such as geotextile coverage and heating systems are exciting developments likely to have a major impact on the future of cool climate viticulture.

Producers Reviews

TERROIR WINE: The Winemaker’s Holy Grail

Randall Grahm Terroir Wine
Photo credit: Nicole diGiorgio sweetnessandlightphoto.com/ Bonny Doon Vineyards

The ambition of many a vineyard-owning winemaker is to craft the finest possible vin de terroir. It is a lofty notion – the story of one vineyard’s specific climate, soil type, orientation, and so forth, expressed through its grape variety(ies) and through the winemaker’s touch, to create a unique wine that could only come from that specific place and vintage.

Randall Grahm is a renowned Californian wine producer; founder of the Santa Cruz-based Bonny Doon Vineyard. Grahm has focused on the pursuit of terroir wines since selling his major brands: Big House Red, Pacific Rim, and Cardinal Zin back in 2006. At a recent tasting in Montréal, Grahm waxed lyrical on the subject.

Grahm separates wines into two categories: those that express winemaking technique, and those that convey provenance.

Grahm separates wines into two categories: those that express winemaking technique, and those that convey provenance. Both are of value. Not every vineyard site has superior qualities. Many are simply adequate to the task of producing good value, easy-drinking wine. And there is nothing wrong with that. A skilled winemaker can enhance quality using a variety of specialized techniques, but the resultant wines will never provoke the kind of “emotional or psychic resonance” Grahm attributes to terroir wine.

In certain, very special vineyards the world over, wine producers have observed a curious phenomenon. Despite using similar grape growing and winemaking techniques as practiced in neighbouring vineyards, the wines from these sites are different, and inexplicably better. They possess a sort of ethereal beauty that stirs the soul. In long established vineyard regions, these plots have been identified with special names or hierarchical classifications like Grand Cru, Grosse Lage, etc.

Grahm has traveled widely, and tasted terroir wines from across the globe. The one common factor he perceives in all of them is minerality. This buzz word is a hot topic of debate in wine circles. Wine writers (yours truly included) regularly describe wines like Chablis or Mosel Riesling as mineral – generally meaning that they smell of wet stone or struck flint, or that they provoke a prickly textural sensation on the palate separate from acidity or carbonation.

“Before I die, one thing that I want to know is…what is minerality?”.

Earth Science experts dismiss minerality as hogwash. A vine’s mineral uptake is so minute in quantity as to be imperceptible to the nose or palate, they say.  Theories abound on what causes these flavour compounds, but for now, no common consensus has been reached.

“Before I die, one thing that I want to know is…what is minerality?”. Grahm views minerality as a “function of greater resistance to oxidation”; an essential “life force” possessed by terroir wines. He sees a correlation between this mineral expression and “a presence of higher concentrations of minerals in soil, a favourable ratio of grape root mass to fruit mass, and healthy microbial life in the soil”. These are the conditions that Grahm is working with in his vineyard.

In a quiet corner of the San Benito County AVA, an inland area of the Central Coast of California, Grahm found Popelouchum. This 113-hectare vineyard in San Juan Bautista was a former settlement of the Mutsun people, a subset of the Ohlone tribe. The word means paradise in their dialect, and this is just what Grahm feels he has found.

Every effort is being taken here to ensure that the full potential of the site is expressed through the grapes. Dry farming using sustainable and biodynamic practices, low yields, moisture retaining biochar for soil amendments, and so forth.

Grahm muses that minerality gives wines an essential “life force” that sets them apart.

Grahm has even dedicated a portion of the vineyard to experimenting with growing grape crossings from seed. His ambition is to create new varieties perfectly suited to his land (and similar such vineyards) – with the necessary disease and drought resistance, along with an elegant, and refined flavour profile. This is important work in an era where climate change is dramatically altering growing conditions, making grapes once ideally suited to a site no longer viable.

The Popelouchum project is still in its infancy. The sole release, a 2015 Grenache grown from ungrafted vine cuttings taken from Château Rayas in Châteauneuf-du-pape, is incredibly vibrant with a highly perfumed, complex nose, silky structure, and persistent, dare-I-say mineral-laced finish. Sadly, you won’t find it on liquor store shelves. The bottling was so small that Grahm is sharing it privately with friends and enthusiasts. Commercial sales are still a couple of vintages down the road.

In the meantime, there are a wide range of Grahm’s Bonny Doon Vineyard wines on offer to distract us. They may not be the absolute expression of terroir that Grahm now seeks, but they certainly are skillfully made and very pleasant to drink.

My top 5 from this weeks’ tasting include:

(What do VW, PW, LW mean? Check out my wine scoring system to find out.)

Bonny Doon Vineyard Vin Gris de Cigare 2017 – 87pts PW

Pretty pale rose in colour. Subtle floral, and red apple hints feature on the nose. This tempting rosé really comes alive on the crisp, creamy textured palate. Light in body, moderately firm, with concentrated, tangy orchard fruit flavours.

Blend: Grenache, Mourvèdre, Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, Carignan

Where to buy: SAQ (22.75$)

Bonny Doon Vineyard Proprio Gravitas 2015 – 88pts PW

Attractive Sémillon character, with notes of lanolin, lemon zest, acacia, and exotic spice on the nose. Fresh, medium in body, with a smooth, rounded mouthfeel and pithy grapefruit notes on the finish.

Blend: Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Muscat

Where to buy: SAQ (20.00$)

Bonny Doon Vineyard Le Cigare Blanc 2014 – 92pts PW

Absolutely killer quality for the price. Sourced from a single parcel, the Beeswax vineyard in Monterrey County. Intriguing aromas of fennel, anise, ripe lemon, apricot, and hints of toasty oak keep you coming back for more. The palate displays excellent balance, with fresh acidity, an ample frame, and highly concentrated, baked pear and spice flavours. Beautifully creamy and layered in texture. Just a shade warming on the finish.

Blend: Grenache Blanc, Roussanne

Where to buy: SAQ (35.00$)

Bonny Doon Vineyard Le Cigare Volant 2012 – 90pts PW

Quite earthy and brooding in nature, with aromas of licorice, black cherry, hints of pepper, and dried floral notes. Fresh and full-bodied, with a firm structure and ripe, grippy tannins. Moderate concentration of juicy, brambly red and dark fruit gives way to cigar box and spiced notes on the medium-length finish.

Blend: Mourvèdre, Grenache, Syrah, Cinsault

Where to buy: SAQ (40.00$)

Bonny Doon Vineyard Old Telegram 2016 – 93pts LW

Lovely floral nose, underscored by hints of dried orange peel, fresh cranberries, raspberries, and black cherry. This weighty, highly concentrated red really shines on the palate, with vibrant acidity, and well-integrated cedar-spice from mainly older oak ageing. The tannins are very elegant; fine-grained and ripe. The finish is long, earthy, and fresh.

Blend: 100% Mourvèdre

Where to buy: Enquire with agent, Trialto 

 

Education Life Reviews Wines

BLENDING AT CHATEAU PETIT-VILLAGE

Pomerol wine blending

After a fabulous dinner in the gracious company of Christian Seely, managing director of AXA Millésimes, and Corinne Ilic, AXA Communications Director, we headed to bed with visions of 2005 vintage Château Pichon Baron dancing in our heads.

In our rooms, a document awaited us. The next morning, we were set to visit another AXA property: Château Petit-Village in Pomerol. The document contained instructions, starting with the day’s objective, namely “to create a blend from 7 samples of pure individual grape varieties from the 2017 vintage”.

Many people equate Bordeaux to Cabernet Sauvignon. However, Cabernet is only one of six grape varieties permitted for Bordeaux reds. These wines, barring a few exceptions, are always blends of two or more grapes. Moreover, Cabernet Sauvignon is not the most widely planted red grape in Bordeaux. That honour goes to Merlot.

Bordeaux reds, barring a few exceptions, are always blends of two or more grapes.

The most acclaimed vineyards of Bordeaux are divided into those on the left bank of a large body of water, the Gironde Estuary (and its tributary, the Garonne), and those on the right bank of another tributary, the Dorgogne river. On the left bank, Cabernet Sauvignon is the principal grape in the majority of fine wine blends. On the right bank, Merlot reigns supreme, with Cabernet Franc as its blending partner.

Perhaps you are wondering why Bordeaux wine producers blend multiple grapes together in their wines? Why not focus on individual varietals as they do in Burgundy and elsewhere?

There are many reasons. Two of the most important are related to climate and soil conditions.

Each grape type has its own specificities. If you were to plant different varieties of roses in your garden, you would see that each would bud and bloom at different dates; each would be more or less resistant to drought, to heavy rain, and to all manners of pests and diseases. Vineyards are the same.

On the left bank, Cabernet Sauvignon is the principal grape in the majority of fine wine blends. On the right bank, Merlot reigns supreme.

The left bank of Bordeaux has a temperate maritime climate with hot summers and mild autumns. The famous vineyards of the Médoc area are protected from cooling Atlantic breezes by coastal pine forests. This is the ideal climate for the late ripening Cabernet Sauvignon. On the right bank, significantly further inland from the coast, the climate is continental with cooler winters and chilling winds. Cabernet Sauvignon struggles to reach maturity here, but Merlot, an earlier ripening variety, thrives, as does Cabernet Franc.

Soil types vary widely from one vineyard to another in Bordeaux. Gravelly soils (in temperate areas) work well for Cabernet Sauvignon. They drain water away well, and radiate heat back up to the vines, providing a warmer environment to boost ripening. Clay soils are cooler, retaining water, and absorbing heat. Merlot is better suited to clay. Cabernet Franc can adapt to a wide variety of soils, yielding lighter, fresher wines in sand or limestone rich soils, and bolder, fuller-bodied wines in clay soils.

To ensure that each piece of land is used optimally growers plot out these soil and micro-climatic variations and plant different grapes accordingly.

The majority of Bordeaux vineyards have a wealth of different soil types. And while the left bank is generally warmer than the right bank, there are many factors that affect the micro-climate of each individual vineyard (orientation, altitude, shelter or lack thereof from wind, just to name a few). To ensure that each piece of land is used optimally – growing grapes that have the best chance of remaining healthy and reaching full ripeness year after year – growers plot out these soil and micro-climatic variations and plant different grapes accordingly.

Co-planting provides wine producers with an insurance policy of sorts. If certain parcels attain only marginal ripeness, are ravaged by frosts, or hit hard by rot, higher percentages of healthier, riper grapes can be selected from other vineyard plots to create the season’s blend. While vintage variation is an accepted trait in Bordeaux (see article here), each Château still strives to maintain a sense of stylistic similarity from one year to the next. This forms their reputation, and brings them a loyal following from their patrons.

Crafting the vintage’s blend is arguably the most important of the winemaker’s yearly tasks. Fine winemakers ferment each grape and plot separately. The wines are then transferred to barrel to begin their élévage. This resting period in contact with the micro-porous wood allows the wine to soften and harmonize.

Crafting the vintage’s blend is arguably the most important of the winemaker’s yearly tasks.

Depending on the percentage of new barrels used, their origin, fabrication methods, and so forth, the oak will impart more or less flavouring components (such as cedar or vanilla notes) to the wine. During this maturation period, the winemaker will take samples from each lot and taste them with his team to determine how much, if any, of each parcel will make it into the Grand Vin. This lofty term refers to the top wine of the estate. Lots judged lesser in quality are downgraded to the second and sometimes third wines of the Château.

Blending is a veritable art. There are many factors that need to be taken into consideration. The winemaker must calculate the overall quantity of wine required and the volume available of each parcel. They must also consider how the wine will evolve in bottle. An age-worthy Bordeaux requires blending components with fresh acidity, firm structure, and good tannic grip. Tasted early on in their maturation, these elements may appear less seductive, but given time to soften they will form an attractive framework, enhancing the more expressively fruity, plusher lots.

Our blending session at Château Petit-Village was, in reality, nothing more than an amusing exercise. The winemakers knew better than to let us loose on their fine wine!  Daniel Llose, AXA Millésimes Technical Director, very generously gave of his time to guide us in our endeavors. We tasted through seven different parcels: 5 Merlot base wines from different plots and of varying vine ages, 1 Cabernet Franc, and 1 Cabernet Sauvignon. We then split into two-man teams and got busy with our funnels, beakers, and pipettes, pouring varying amounts of each of our preferred samples into a bottle, thus creating our Pomerol blends.

Blending is a veritable art. The winemaker must consider how the wine will evolve in bottle.

Pomerol is a small, yet highly prestigious appellation on the right bank. There are just under 800 hectares of vines planted here on a mix of gravel, limestone and clay soils. Château Petit-Village has an enviable position at the highest point of the (low lying) Pomerol vineyards, where the soils are gravelly with optimal drainage. The subsoil here is of particular note. The highly prized “crasse de fer”, an iron-rich clay, is said to impart complex aroma of truffles to the resultant wines. Grapes grown on these soils are the most sought after of Pomerol.

After our blends were tasted and politely deemed acceptable by Daniel, we moved on to taste the finished product. Over a sumptuous lunch of roasted duck, we sampled three very fine vintages of Château Petit-Village: 2010, 2007, 2000.

Without further ado, my notes:

Château Petit-Village Pomerol 2010

 

Fragrant aromas of ultra-ripe dark plum, black cherry, and blueberry dominate the nose, underscored with licorice, truffle, cedar, and floral notes. Powerfully structured and weighty, with rounded acidity. Velvety in texture, with impressive depth of dark fruit flavours lingering long on the persistent, layered finish. Firm, fine-grained tannins ensure superior ageability.

Blend: 73% Merlot, 18% Cabernet Franc, 9% Cabernet Sauvignon

Ageing:  70% new French oak, 30% second use barrels. 15 months.

Château Petit-Village Pomerol 2007

Pretty notes of crushed plum, ripe raspberry, and blueberry mingle with hints of violet and subtle oaked nuances. Quite fresh and vibrant in style, with a full-body, soft, chalky texture, and medium weight, powdery tannins. Not as concentrated as the 2010, but very elegant, with well-integrated oak, and a long, lifted finish.

Blend: 78% Merlot, 16% Cabernet Franc, 6% Cabernet Sauvignon

Ageing: 60% new French oak, 40% second use barrels. 15 months.

Château Petit-Village Pomerol 2000

Fully mature, with an attractive tertiary nose featuring earthy, truffle aromas, dried plum, sweet tobacco hints, and exotic spice. Still pleasingly fresh on the palate, with a full-body, and supple texture. A concentrated core of dried floral and savoury nuances marks the mid-palate. The tannins are plush and rounded.

Blend: 75% Merlot, 18% Cabernet Franc, 7% Cabernet Sauvignon

Ageing: 70% new French oak, 30% second use barrels. 15 months.

Life

THE PURSUIT OF PURITY

purity natural wine
Photo credit: Condrieu vineyards, Jasper Van Berkel

Purity. This simple six letter word conjures up profound connotations of flawless perfection. In recent years, it has become a buzzword for the natural wine movement. It is bandied about freely in winery literature, press articles and the like. In a recent Meininger’s article, Canberra-based natural winemaker Bryan Martin reckoned that his pét nat sparkling Riesling offers, ‘the most pure expression of Riesling that you can get’.  Isabelle Legeron asserts that, ‘natural wines have purer flavours…’ in the Basic Introduction to Natural Wine on her excellent website.

Let me start by saying that I am an enthusiastic supporter of growers that strive to create healthy, balanced vineyards free of chemical poisons. I actively seek out producers crafting singular wines that stand out from the crowd. I therefore applaud natural winemaking and its laudable principles. However, I take issue with the community’s appropriation of the notion of purity.  This act has tacit implications for other winemaking styles. It also calls into question the true motivation of its admirers.

According to the Oxford Dictionary, purity means ‘freedom from adulteration or contamination’. The majority of low interventionist wines are made without additives. In this sense, deeming them pure is a fair assessment. Wild yeasts are allowed to spur spontaneous fermentation, acid levels are not adjusted, commercial enzymes are eschewed and sulphur dioxide, if used at all, is kept to a strict minimum. In ideal conditions: impeccable winery hygiene, scrupulous oxygen management, precise temperature control from fermentation right through to the moment of consumption, these wines can be divine. The complexity, elegance and, indeed purity, of well-made natural wines is, to me, a given.

But ideal conditions are rarely achieved in winemaking, as in life. Naturally occurring yeast colonies often struggle to complete fermentation as alcohol levels and temperatures rise. Stuck fermentations are common leaving the must at risk of exposure to all manners of yeasts and bacteria that can significantly alter aromatics and flavours. This isn’t always a bad thing. In certain cases, the result is a heightened complexity that gives the wine infinitely more appeal. Be this as it may, microbial infection is a form of contamination, rendering the affected wine impure if we are to take the dictionary definition literally.

…ideal conditions are rarely achieved in winemaking, as in life.

This idea takes on additional significance if we consider the most common usage for this term. More often than not purity, as relates to wine, is a descriptor for the character of the fruit. In the glossary section of the Wine Cellar Insider, purity is likened to ‘tasting a sweet, ripe berry off the vine’. And yet, the heady raspberry bouquet of Grenache is muted in the presence of pungent Brettanomyces-induced barnyard aromas. The acrid pitch of high volatile acidity levels overshadows the fruity vibrancy of even the spriteliest Gamay. To me, wines protected from microbial and oxidative reactions, with precision and restraint, show far brighter, more expressive fruit.

The reputed natural wine advocate Pierre Jancou, speaking though his website MorethanOrganic.com, purports that natural wines have ‘purity and honesty of expression’, while wines made in a conventional way ‘taste of the same few manufactured flavours’. The term conventional is murky. For many adherents to the natural wine movement, any manipulation in the winery equates to conventional winemaking. Following that logic, the simple act of chaptalising, commonly practiced in most cool vintage for even top Burgundy estates, renders wines conventional. I don’t know of many fortunate enough to taste the exquisite wines of Domaine Leflaive that would claim they lack complexity or a true sense of terroir.

The notion of honesty of expression is also troubling as it stakes out a moral high ground for natural wines. The insinuation is anything but subtle. Wines made with any form of vinification aides or antioxidants are dishonest; those that imbibe are being duped. So does the practice of egg white fining at Château Margaux make their wines less sincere? With the softening of the tannins, does the pure expression of this storied wine lessen?

The notion of honesty of expression is troubling as it stakes out a moral high ground for natural wines.

American writer Calvin Trillin once said, ‘the price of purity is purists’. Time and again, I have found myself staring down zealous sommeliers who swears only by natural wines. They have an almost religious fervour about them, blithely filling their wine lists with offerings that only a handful of customers will actually enjoy. They condemn other wine styles and patronize those that dare to offer a differing opinion.

The thought that intrigues me is, deep down, do enthusiasts truly love the wines, or is it the idea of experiencing so-called purity that has them hooked? Every field has its share of purists. My musician brother told me of audiophiles that go to insane lengths and spend upwards of 50 000$ on sound systems in the pursuit of ‘the perfect sound’. Where does one draw the line between passion and obsession? And what is the virtue of purity for purity’s sake?

The danger, as I see it, is a narrowing of scope. Purists often have a limited view of what is acceptable, and what is not. Applying a strict set of doctrines to winemaking seems a step backward. I often hear natural wine advocates claim that the wines hearken back to the days before industrialization. And yet, I am quite sure that if our forefathers, who watched in dismay when their wine turned vinegary, could have flipped a switch to cool their tanks, or restarted fermentation with cultured yeasts, they would have. The winemakers I admire most embrace both tradition and innovation. They step back when they can and step in (with a gentle touch) when necessary to preserve wine from spoilage.

The danger, as I see it, is a narrowing of scope. Purists often have a limited view of what is acceptable, and what is not.

For all the well-crafted natural wines out there that truly embody a notion of purity, there are as many top class conventionally made wines that can justly make the same claim. The term cannot simply be brandished by one camp as a distinguishing feature of style.  Firstly, because the assertion is often inaccurate. Secondly, as applying the word to a specific winemaking philosophy carries the insinuation that wines not made in this manner are impure and therefore less worthy. This powerful implication could well be the reason that many wine lovers have become such die-hard fans. Perhaps it is time for natural wines to lay down the banner of purity and let drinkers decide for themselves?