Damning Overmanipulation of the Juice
For those of you who read this blog on a regular basis, you know that I have a bias for certain types of wines. It is the articulation of why I like or dislike certain styles of winemaking that has eluded me, or at least in a comprehensive ‘Weltanschauung’ sort of way. But this has changed.
At a recent tasting of Australian, Coonawarra-based Katnook, and in the presence of senior winemaker Wayne Stehbens, all these discussions about organics, natural wines, style versus terroir, and so forth reached a focal point, in my glass. It started with the whites.
The three Sauvignon Blancs were all theoretically perfect (gooseberry, vegetative notes, crispness). But I found both the acidity and the mouth feel somewhat off, especially when offset by the richness of the wine. When asked about the challenges of growing Sauvignon Blanc in extremely warm climates, Stehbens waxed the virtues of adding tartaric acid, and of aromatic yeast strains which can handle the high alchohol content of the wines. All this is to preserve what he calls 'essential varietal integrity!?!# ' But the question is then, if Loire and other cool climate regions set the standard for what Sauvignon Blanc should be, and the only way to achieve this model is through what I see as pretty rock and roll interventions, either the standard must be changed to a warm climate model or simply don’t grow Sauvignon in such unfriendly climatic conditions.
The reds are easier to dissect. Typical of warm climate Cabs and Shiraz, they are fruit driven (no Brett here, my friends), but I again find the ensemble heavy, over-oaked, lacking cut and too sweet. That is not a surprise as I don’t particularly like that style but many do and I can respect that. What did surprise me was that the reds were also boosted by both tartaric acid and commercial tannin. If as a result of this manipulation the acidity is too high, then Potassium Sorbate is added. Are these standard interventions for most warm weather winemakers? I always believed my dislike for this style was simply the sugar, texture and wood, but could it again be the artificial acids and tannins? Are there new world winemakers who do not have to manipulate their wines in this way?
While this is damning to a certain extent of modern viticultural techniques, it is by no means limited to New World wineries (the French and other Euro wines regions often use chapitalization to boost sugar levels rather than pruning to get maximum ripeness in weaker years, and I am sure more than a few grams of tartaric acid were used in the 2003 vintage). But because the varietal model seems to remain European, the climatic challenges of California, Australia and South America make these types of interventions necessary to follow that model. Can we taste these interventions? Should the new world winemakers seek out new models so that the wines need not be manipulated and adjusted in a way that attempts to negate one of the primary influences on its character (the weather)?
For me, winemaking is an art.
And over the years I have been fortunate enough to taste thousands upon thousands of wines.
And in the end the most fantastic superlative that I can throw at a wine that I love is ‘purity.’