Tag Archives: Winemaking

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.

Harvest 2015: Wrap Up

  
This week marks the end of harvest here in New York for me. We only have a few vineyards left to pick. All of the vinifera was safely in the door week before last and now the tanks are going through fermentation. The photo above is one of the Pumpovers on my first Cabernet Franc from the area. There were several key surprises that I have been intrigued by. 

1) The berry size is almost twice what I am used to seeing. 

2) The sugar is dramatically lower than other areas. This was somewhat expected being in a cool climate but the reality is definitely a change from my previous Cab Franc experiences. 

3) There are minimal bell pepper flavors. This was very exciting suggesting the sugar ripeness issue may be dealing with crop load rather than environmental issues since the flavors are ripe. 

4) Cabernet Franc Rose is amazing!!!! I’m very excited about my Rose this year 

5) The Riesling is as good as I remember and I’m very happy to report that both of my Rieslings look very promising at this stage. One is through fermentation and the other is almost finished. 

The Cabernet Franc is almost dry so we are still managing the cap there but backing off at this point. It has been a challenging year but they all are to some extent here. I’m excited to be back and invigorated with the challenges and surprises I’ve seen this year. I can’t wait to see how the wines turn out! 

Ningxia Winemaker Challenge: Part 1 – Harvest 2015

 Every now and then I like to push myself out of my comfort zone just to keep myself from being too comfortable in any single situation.  This trip was so far out of my comfort zone, I wasn’t even in the same ballpark with it anymore.  I did not know what to expect and since the details of what would happen when I arrived were quite fuzzy, I was going on pure blind faith that everything would be taken care of.  I shouldn’t have worried at all.   This was an experience like none that I have ever been a part of.  The first few days were spent in the company of my fellow Challenge winemakers, 48 of us in all.  As a group, we represent almost every major winemaking country, with varying experiences, languages, and careers.  Everyone was super friendly and, as is usually the case with winemaking types, extremely passionate about wine and grapes.  I had great conversations during these first days where we toured the Ningxia Provence by bus, visiting several wineries as well as our vineyard that we would be working with.

 The selection ceremony came and each winemaker was paired with a partner winery and selected a vineyard block.  This was done by random selection.  I was extremely lucky with my pick.  I am paired with a winery called Lansai.  The winery itself is small by local standards but elegantly designed and stays true to the spirit of China with very traditional architecture, statues and reliefs of mythological and symbolic Chinese figures cranes, lions, birds, and of course the dragon, which is the most prominent of the symbols and was chosen to bring power to the winery. Even though the winery is not finished it has a powerful feel to it, as though the building stands in comfortable harmony with the land even though it makes such a strong statement on the landscape.


I decided to pick on Friday, September 25th, earlier than most of my contemporaries but there was 3 days of rain coming the next week and I had no time to waste given that I was flying home on October 3rd.  If there is one thing I know from my years of winemaking, it is that 3 days of rain does not improve anything in wine quality that close to harvest.  I was able to sort quite strictly at both the cluster and berry level. Ten percent of the fruit did not make the cut.  The resulting juice was easy to work with and extracted quite nicely without the use of enzymes which so many people seem to rely on for fermentations.  I was initially concerned that I wouldn’t be able to find the winemaking supplies that I normally use in the US, but it turns out that the suppliers have great representation in the region and I was able to find everything that I needed.  The winery is very well equipped with both heating and cooling capabilities on all the tanks, a luxury which I have not had previously.  The analysis was good from the sorted fruit and I am very happy with how the wine turned out.  I was able to press off one tank at dryness before I left and am very pleased with the texture of the tannin.  The seeds were quite green still so I wanted to minimize any harsh extraction while still providing great structure for the wine.
 I had other great adventures while making the wine.  I tried a Durnian fruit for the first time, and probably the last because the smell was almost too much for me to take.  I celebrated the Chinese holiday, Middle Moon, with my Chinese host family who have welcomed me in with open arms and have supported my efforts for making the best quality wine with amazing enthusiasm.  I have sampled much of the local food, minus anything spicy, and can report that it is delicious.  In particular, I am in love with the egg based Chinese crepe that is served for breakfast here.  I have already found a recipe and if it is successfully similar I will share it.

I returned from China yesterday and although I am a bit jet lagged still, I am happy that I have been able to participate in this incredible journey.  I have left the wine in the capable hands of the Lansai winemaker, a young man named Mr. Wu, with detailed instructions on what to expect in the next few months before I head back to Lansai in February.  All I can do is hope for the best and continue to make the most out of this incredible experience.