Tag Archives: Viticulture

En Vogue: Misconceptions About Natural Wines

The subject of natural wines is a very subjective one.  Who defines what “natural” means?  One winemaker’s “natural” wine is another winemaker’s concocted swill all depending on where one stands on the strictness of what the definition of natural is.  While Organic and Biodynamic are easier to define due to their respective certification programs, they are still so misunderstood by the vast majority of consumers that there are completely misinformed beliefs being circulated by the general populace.  I have a passion for Biodynamic wine growing.  It is my dream to one day have my own Biodynamic vineyard because I truly believe there is something special in these types of wine. It is sad that most people don’t understand the differences between conventional, organic, and Biodynamic farming however, I was excited to see, over the holidays, that a mainstream publication, Vogue, decided to tackle this subject (Read the full story here).  I had hoped that the writer would have demonstrated a sound grasp of all three methods and could dispel some of the myths that are out there.  Unfortunately, it was yet again riddled with blatant misunderstandings and errors.   The title alone made me cringe.

No Chemicals: This Is the Most Natural Wine You Can Drink

No Chemicals.  Really?  Can someone please let the common man know that everything.  LITERALLY EVERYTHING is made up of chemicals.  Wine is no exception and is generally made up of the following CHEMICALS.

85% Dihydrogen Monoxide (That is water for the folks who missed the class in High School chemistry on chemical naming)

13% Ethanol (or the alcohol part of the drink)

1% Glycerol ( A sugar alcohol compound that adds viscosity and mouthfeel)

0.4% Organic Acids (Tartaric, Malic, Lactic, Citric, Succinic, etc..)

0.1% Tannins and Phenolic Compounds ( Color, Texture, Mouthfeel)

0.5% Other Chemicals

The great infographic was found at Compound Interest and they dive much further into this topic for red wines if you really want to geek out.  I think their estimation of the average alcohol is probably a little low hence the changes to my list above.

Assuming I give the article the benefit of the doubt about the Chemical issue…

(because after all, those of us who know wine, know this person was referring to the 3 classes of chemicals that fall into Pesticides, Herbicides, and Fungicides), the second sentence made me groan.

“Composting instead of using pesticides?”

These two actions are not interchangeable or on an either/or type of set up.  Composting is the process of turning organic waste and other natural matter into nutrient and beneficial, microbially rich soil amendments.  Using Pesticides is the process of using a chemical to kill a desired pest or range of pest.  You can do both or neither but they are not directly connected.  The author may be referring to the Biodynamic preparations which DO need to be put through the process of composting in various containers (cow’s horns, stag’s bladders, farm animal skulls, etc.) using different herbs or ingredients for at least one season before they can be added to a spray to either be applied to the soil or directly to the vine.  It should be noted that elemental sulpur (a Chemical) is used as a fungicide and is allowed in Organic, Biodynamic, and conventional viticulture.  Hopefully this clears up the misunderstanding of the second sentence of the article.  Reading on…

“Fermenting with native yeasts? Such practices were the domain of eccentrics and hippies.”

AND everyone prior to 1857 when Louis Pasteur discovered that yeast were actually what was fermenting the wine.  Personally, I love a good native ferment, however you have to have extremely clean and healthy fruit to have it go well.  Not everyone is blessed with such great fruit particularly at the value or premium end of the wine market.  Usually the “native” yeasts used today in most wineries are some form of a cultured yeast that was released into the microflora before the winery decided to start doing “native” ferments.  Of course that also doesn’t take into account that a wide number of popular strains of cultured yeasts were just native yeasts that were identified for particularly good characteristics and produced for everyone to purchase.

“The philosophy behind this grassroots winemaking movement is to let Mother Nature do most of the work in the vineyard and to intervene as little as possible in the cellar. In other words: no chemicals on the grapes and as few additives as possible in the bottle.”

Trust me.  Viticulture is working with Mother Nature but she doesn’t do jack when it comes to working in the vineyard beyond blessing a grower with good weather or bad.  Biodynamic and Organic wine growers work HARD.  These growers have to be constantly vigilant looking for problems.  They have to walk they rows everyday to assess vineyard health. The effort it takes to keep up with a lunar calendar, alone, is not for the faint of heart.  If we left it up to Mother Nature, the vines would be climbing trees instead of trellises and the birds would make off with whatever fruit the vines were able to produce.  The very fact that we have decided to train a vine takes it out of the realm of natural and into human intervention.  The sentence in the article sounds great but it does make it sound like these types of wine just make themselves.

Then I got to these two sentences and it made me want to hurl my phone across the room…

“Modern winemaking relies on ingredients like commercial yeasts and enzymes to ferment the wine, as well as additives to deepen its color, enrich its texture, boost its acidity, and sweeten its taste. What’s more, pesticides and herbicides have become commonplace in the vineyard. Many vintners spray their grapes not only to kill pests and disease, but as a routine preventative measure even when nothing at all is wrong with them.”

Chemicals are the second highest cost in vineyard management next to labor.  No one in their right mind, conventional, organic, or biodynamic just sprays the vineyard because nothing is wrong with it.  Generally the spray is because an infection has been spotted or because a crazy storm is coming and you know if you don’t spray you will lose your entire crop to mildew.  Yes, it is preventative in most cases because if you wait until something is wrong, you are too late and the quality of wine will suffer.

The article goes on to quote Catherine Papon-Nouvel of Clos Saint-Julien in Bordeaux, Elisabeth Saladin in the Rhône valley, and Thiébault Huber, in Burgundy who all explain their rationale for their preferred growing methods quite beautifully.  Their passion is clear, as are most growers and winemakers who follow these strict methods of making wine.  It was a moment of great joy for me to read after the initial misconceptions in the article.

Then we delve back into the rest of the article.

“Natural wines can be funky,” says Caleb Ganzer, head sommelier at La Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels, the New York outpost of a Paris bar. As in: earthy, floral, redolent of mushrooms. “They can be briny or tart. Sometimes they’re fizzy. Unfiltered wines can be cloudy. Or they can taste just like conventional wines. You’ve probably had one without knowing it.”

This is my main problem with “natural” wines.  It’s the thought of the end consumers that they have to accept flaws in the wine because they were made naturally.  Well made Natural Wine should taste as good or better than conventionally made wine. Otherwise it is just flawed and it was the winemaker’s choice to let it be flawed.

I appreciate a strong philosophy but when philosophy becomes Dogma and it leads to a drop in quality then what’s the point of your philosophy.

There.  I’ll get off my soapbox now.

If you want to read a great article about Organic and Biodynamic wines please click here for Winerist.com’s comprehensive descriptions.

Small Bites: My Quick News Roundup!

There is so much to talk about from the past few weeks while my family and I have been relocating across the country!  I decided to break them down into small bites…

Bite 1: Arsenic Anyone?

I really don’t want to give this story any more time than it takes for me to acknowledge it however Alder Yarrow from Vinography.com did an amazing post telling you why exactly you shouldn’t be worried about this and instead of trying to reinvent the wheel, please read his post here.

Bite 2: WE’RE HERE!!!!!

We arrived into the beautiful and chilly state of New York last weekend and are now settling into our new house.  Currently one entire room is devoted to unpacked, empty boxes but once those get hauled away tomorrow we should be in fairly good shape as far as moving in is concerned.
 

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I started my new job last week and while it is a dramatic change from Robert Mondavi, it should present a good challenge.  Back in January, we closed on 12 acres on the shores of Seneca lake and I went out that day to put “Posted” signs up.  Upon our return last weekend all but 1 of the 6 signs were torn down.  I’m hoping it is just a combination of wind and extreme cold but I can’t help but be worried that the former owner of a nice deer stand on our land may have had something to do with it.  Our goal is to clear much of the land this summer once the soil dries out some from all the snow this winter.  That way we can start to see where our future house and vineyards will go! We are very excited about this new phase of our lives.

Bite 3: Vintage 2015 Update

New York: It’s cold.  It has been VERY, VERY cold this winter.  I’m a little concerned that we may not have many grapes to make wine with from the western side of the state.  Even though we got another 3 inches of snow this morning, signs of spring are everywhere.  Those 3 inches were mostly melted away by mid afternoon.  Robins are showing up and Canadian Geese can be heard flying overhead, heading North.  Maybe we’ll be close to budbreak around the middle of May.

Napa:  Budbreak is everywhere and frost season is in full swing according to a friend of mine.  There has still been very little rain so the area is poised for a 3rd consecutive drought season.  Again, I wouldn’t want the be the grower that has to choose between protecting what crop they may have this year and saving water so that they can ripen that crop.

Those are the bites for the week!  Happy growing season everyone!

 

Concerning Merlot…

There seems to be a bit of buzz ramping up regarding Merlot in the blogosphere this week and I wanted to add my two cents.  I was recently talking to a colleague about my concerns about Merlot disappearing from Napa.  It seems every time you turn around someone else is pulling a Merlot vineyard to replant it to Cabernet Sauvignon.  I really like Merlot.  When it is done well, it is a beautiful thing.  However, during the PS era (pre-Sideways) there was quite a bit of very bad Merlot on the market since it was the “it” grape.  The quintessential red wine of America, one could almost look up “red wine” in the dictionary and have a picture and description of Merlot as the definition.   Post-sideways, it became the least desirable, least flashy workhorse of the wine world and sales plummeted for the next few years and vineyards began to pull it.

The pulling has slowed however it is becoming harder and harder to find good Merlot.  I personally feel that Cabernet needs a little bit of Merlot.  It fills in the middle and rounds out the edges.  There is a reason these varieties are blended together most of the time because they truly do complement each other.   The Sommelier Files brought up a great point saying “Thanks to the combination of soft tannins and finesse, the distinct flavors of … high-quality Merlots are also very approachable and fantastic with winter dishes.”   It’s a great variety and one that I would hate to see reduced further in the valley.  I have a fear that we as winemakers are going to wake up one day to a monoculture of Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa and have no Merlot or Cabernet Franc to enhance it.

I’m not fortunate enough to own vineyard land in Napa but if I did, I’d be looking at all my neighbors planting Cabernet Sauvignon and probably would decide to go with Merlot.  If you are planting now one has to think about the market in 3-6 years and beyond.  I think Merlot is going to be the scarcer commodity in a few year’s time and it might be quietly coming back while no one is looking.