Harvest 2014 : A worthwhile compromise

Yes, it has been an inexcusably long time since my last post, and yes, I hate it just as much as anyone when bloggers post their excuses for their extended absences, but really, I have a good excuse. Or two, in fact.

Harvest 2014 and a Master’s thesis.

harvest hands_MFEWine-stained hands finishing up a Master’s thesis

I defended my Master’s thesis, “Targeted and Untargeted Analysis of Premature Oxidation in White Burgundy Wines Issued from Different Vinification Strategies,” in French, last week in the midst of 2014’s incredibly abundant harvest.

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View from the vineyards at Saint Jean du Barroux

In the AOC Ventoux, where I’m working for the winery Saint Jean du Barroux, 2014 was an atypical vintage. The grapes were bloated due to an abnormal excess of rain throughout the growing season, producing a record-high average bunch weight for the appellation. During maturity checks before harvest began, I noted enormous bunches, which in certain zones of the vineyard were having a hard time achieving ripeness – there were colossal bunches bursting with pink and green grapes interspersed with more reasonably-sized bunches that were already ripe. Philippe Gimel, the owner and winemaker of Saint Jean du Barroux, subscribes to the motto that winemaking is all about compromises. But the tactical approach we put into action turned out to be a win-win on three fronts. We began harvest by going through the most heavily loaded plots to harvest only the biggest, least ripe bunches, which we pressed to make a fresh, bright rosé. Meanwhile, the vine, her load significantly lightened, could focus her energy on ripening the remaining bunches to perfection, and could do so with a greatly reduced risk of disease. High yield and big bunches mean that the grapes are crowded up against each other, trapping moisture and reducing the potential for airflow – a perfect storm for the propagation of rot.

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View from the winery at Saint Jean du Barroux

After a whirlwind three weeks, the compromise seems to have paid off. Now the winery is bursting with wine, almost all of the alcoholic fermentations now completed and all but two tanks of red pressed and racked. Now we’ll be able to sit back and enjoy the fruits of our labor – watching the evolution of these new, promising wines and deciding on blends. The theme of compromise will always remain at the forefront, as this is key in winemaking : compromise between quality and quantity, effort and patience, acidity and tannin, knowledge and know-how, power and delicacy, and of course, art and science.

2014-10-16 18.05.58Saint Jean du Barroux’s Pierre Noire presented at the post-graduation tasting for the Master International Vintage class of 2014

Taste and feel, don’t think and do

This is the motto of winemaker PJ Barton, with whom I shared a fabulous 2 weeks at Barton Estate in Bot River, about an hour from Cape Town.  PJ has many, many ideas (most of them, he would say, a bit crazy) about winemaking, and happily shared his wealth of information throughout the time I stayed with him.  I worked with him a bit in the cellar, went with him to marketing lunches, consultation visits, and a meeting of the Bot River Association of Winemakers.  We had many intriguing conversations over many bottles of wine, his insights helping to fill out my knowledge and our conversations helping me to articulate some of the conclusions I’m beginning to draw from my experiences this year.

PJ is all about making wine from the heart.  When we went through the cellar to taste each tank and barrel, he asked me to leave my notebook behind so we could just talk about how each wine played on our palate, filled out our mouths, and, my personal favorite, personify the wines a bit.  PJ frequently would describe wines and winemaking processes in human terms, such as when he explained his feeling that a barrel is a doctor for a ‘problem wine’, and that the best thing to do with wine you’re having trouble with is to stick it in a barrel and wait, as the mediated flow of oxygen and the unique cylindrical shape of the barrel will bring the wine back into balance.  He often talks about wines in such terms, intuitive rather than scientific.  But to be honest, maybe this is a more informative way to think about wine.  The system is so complex that science can only understand one aspect at a time, breaking it down into simpler, controllable parts.  And for this reason I think it is important to have an alternative manner for thinking about the system.  Not that we should abandon the science, by any means, as it provides an incredibly valuable perspective as well, but consider the analogy of medicine and biology.  The human body is, also, an incredibly complex system, and science and western medicine represent one way of approaching it – breaking down the body into individual systems, trying to understand biology from a micro-scale and treating these individual components when there is a problem.  Contrast this with something like Chinese medicine, which we don’t have the capacity to “scientifically” understand in the western sense of the word, because science isn’t set up to answer those types of questions.  Chinese medicine represents a completely different approach, looking at the whole system rather than breaking it down into smaller parts.  I think that PJ’s approach to winemaking is in many ways analogous to this holistic approach, and it works.  I can’t say it is better or worse than a more ‘scientific’ approach, but it does have a lot of historical precedent in the old world, where people have been making wine from the heart, without access to scientific tools, for centuries.

As a contrast to PJ’s ‘from the heart’ approach, consider the case of winemaker  Rudy ?? at Bilton Estate in Stellenbosch.  PJ and I went to see him and tour his winery, and he showed us some of the ‘experimental’ wines he is working on.  The most intellectually intriguing (though I didn’t taste it so I can’t speak to that side of things) wine he had was one he refers to as 500% oaked.  This means that he put the wine in a new French oak barrel after fermentation, ages it there for one year, then moves it to a fresh barrel for a year, repeating this process for a total of 5 years.  He claims (though again, I didn’t taste it so I can’t say from experience) that it is not overly tannic, and when I asked why he thinks this would be, he offered an explanation based on tannin saturation.  Using an analogy of basketballs (tannins) and golf balls, tennis balls, and marbles (smaller molecules in the wine), he explained his theory that the wine will become saturated relatively quickly with tannins, as they are bigger, but there will remain plenty of nooks and crannies between the ‘basketballs’ in which can fit the smaller molecules – flavor and aroma compounds, etc, which will continue to be extracted from each new barrel.  I’m not sure if I agree with this explanation from a chemical perspective, as most of the small molecules in oak should actually be easier to extract than the tannins, but that isn’t my point, which is to demonstrate a very, very different approach to thinking about the wine.  Rudy has invested time and energy to research and postulate a theory explaining what he sees in his wine from a molecular perspective, while PJ would never do something like this.  His approach, rather, is to do what makes sense intuitively, based on his many years of experience making wine.  Though arguably a less ‘rigorous’ approach, I strongly believe that is has at least as much validity as any other, because like it or not, wine has this element of mystery, of surprise and unpredictability, and that is precisely what keeps it interesting.