So I was at this Chardonnay tasting. All of the wines were double blind, the only thing we knew about them was that they were all Chardonnay. As we went through the lineup we made some notes about overall style, quality, production methods and our honest opinion of what we thought of each.
As we were revealing the wines there was one in particular that I described as “tasting manufactured.” What I meant was that the wine didn’t seem to make sense. It was like someone said they wanted a big oaky, buttery, rich Chardonnay that had a really bright acidity with toasty oak, minerality and so on. It was like it was meant to encompass every style of Chardonnay in one bottle which doesn’t really happen unless it was doctored up to be that way. One of the folks at the table called me on the comment disagreeing that it was an issue. They believed that if that was the style the producer was going for than good on them. To be fair he wasn’t wrong but that Chardonnay tasted out of whack.
There are A TON of options at our disposal when making wine. Things we can add, machines we can use, techniques we can employ and so on. A great article in the New York Times popped up after the industry’s Unified Wine & Grape Symposium that provides some excellent insight into what goes on behind the cellar doors and some of the technology that is employed to make great wines. That however, is the tip of the iceberg.
On the other end of the spectrum you have a small movement toward natural winemaking. In essence it means that you refrain from adding anything to the wine that is naturally present. For some productions, both big and small, winemakers have the ability to add acidity, extracts, and concentrates to “enhance” the wine they are making. The natural wine movement opposes utilizing those options during the winemaking process.
So how do you know how is doing what? And what does that mean for the wine?
The natural wine movement is kind of like Crossfit, if someone is doing it they will tell you. On the other side of the spectrum many winemaking techniques are out on the table because the are important to how we get a wine to be a particular style. The deep dark rabbit hole are the additives. It is not required to label the use of these and and a result many productions don’t have to disclose those items. I could go on and on about what can be used but Wine Folly had an awesome write up on wine additives a few years back that is worth checking out.
So look at it this way. Some people are fans of Pepsi and others Coke. You don’t usually cross the streams because each has a specific taste that you have come to expect and that is what you want. The same is true for the majority of wine you see on a grocery store shelf. As a result producers have to try and stick to their recipe and ensure that their wine is manufactured in a way that it will be consistent year after year despite what is happening with the weather and in the vineyard.
There are plenty of small producers that use some of these fining techniques and additives to simply ensure the wines are consistent with the style that their clients have come to know and love. I do the same thing at MTGA. Small additions of yeast and nutrients are used during fermentation with small does of sulfites that act as a preservative during aging. This is how I ensure that my wines are fairly consistent HOWEVER I am a big fan of vintage variation and how it impacts the wine. I don’t want my wines to be Pepsi or Coke. I want them to be consistent but at the same time keep you guessing.
While I generally try to avoid any additives (and can do so outside of the items listed above) I also think the natural wine movement is kind of silly (mostly because those wines can be really funky if you just let the grapes do their thing). As with all things you have to find a balance and not be fanatical at either end of the spectrum. I always encourage people to get to know their producers and their winemakers. Understand what they do and how they do it so when you have that “ah-ha” wine moment you can see how those techniques help create a wine that you love.
The Pepsi and Coke options will always be there for you, but the fun stuff isn’t manufactured. It’s created. It is the everlasting battle between science, art and how they come together without getting in each other’s way.