Unveiling the heart and craftsmanship in production
Sugar plus yeast equals carbon dioxide, heat and alcohol. This is the basic equation that every winemaker is bound by. But to distill the “art” of making wine to simple mathematics is a travesty to the heart and soul of what makes wine not just a beverage, but a cultural and intellectual product that adds value to our lives.
Winemaking is an art form that has just as many stylistic choices and nuances as any other. The many pathways to how wine is made can be as complex as finding your way through a Metro station. And like any artist, each winemaker chooses their path and destination. Let us look at just a few areas where the winemakers’ talents and artistry display themselves.
Most Champagne is made from a blend of three different grapes: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Meunier, the two latter being black-skinned grapes. The master blender must not only contend with these three varietals and what their intrinsic qualities bring to the blend, but these grapes may come from many different vineyards throughout Champagne. And although Champagne only has one appellation for sparkling wine, there are more than 80,000 acres planted with vines from which these grapes can be picked. Can you say diversity? Add to this the fact that the winemaker will blend multiple vintages (no two of which will be the same in quantity or quality) for non-vintage Champagnes, with up to as many as a dozen to create a consistent “house” style year after year.
And did I mention that this has to be done before there is any effervescence in the wine? In fact, the wine will not be allowed by law to be released to the public until a minimum of 15 months after it is put into the bottle. This blending art is a talent honed after many years in the cellars and passed down from generation to generation.
Decisions, decisions – they never end for the winemaker. But perhaps the most important decision involved in winemaking is at the beginning: when to harvest. The timing of harvest can mean the difference between a mediocre wine and a great one, because it fixes the quality of the raw materials that the winemaker has to work with. It is the springboard from which the wine will either rise to higher heights or fall into the abyss.
Avoiding the horrors of sudden inclement weather systems and seeking perfect ripeness and balance in the grapes is not as simple as just analyzing sugar and acid content. Jean-Nicolas Meo of Domain Meo-Camuzet notes that he walks the vines every day near the time of harvest to “feel” the vines and get a better awareness of when is the right time to harvest. Experience and intuition have helped Meo craft some of the world’s great Pinot Noirs. A number of winemakers practice this same approach to be in tune with the cycle of the vines. And it shows in their wines.
How long and how much? This is a question of wood. The length of time a wine spends in new oak and the amount of wine that is aged in new oak is integral to the finished taste of a wine. Too much, and you have something unpalatable (wood juice); too little, and your fans think something is wrong. The dexterity with which a winemaker uses oak to add flavor (or not) is akin to a chef’s ability to add just the right amount of spices or herbs to a dish to bring out the best flavors of the main ingredient rather than dominate it. Each wine is as different as each barrel. Assembling the proper quantities and the right timing is a true craft.
Some would say that one single choice is neither right nor wrong. It is a matter of expression. But each of these choices will affect the final product and expression of the wine. And it is this expression that we as wine drinkers value so much. It also is what makes winemaking a true art form.