Author Chris Turyk – I love wine, a lot. I’m a Certified Sommelier, WSET Diploma graduate, and get in everyones way at Unsworth Vineyards.
Dating back millennia, few things eclipse wine’s storied and integral link with romance. Much of this time was spent in reverence and awe of the mysterious transformation of fruit to its hedonistic result. In times of antiquity wine was a social lubricant, an artist’s muse, a currency and just a pure energy source! Advancements in production essentially halted after the Roman era, as technology was sidelined in favour of logistics. Romans employed layers of protection like, crafting wine from dried grapes, development of amphorae aided in fermentation kinetics, and wines were protected from oxygen by way of wax and olive oil closures.
During the following 1500 years, until Louis Pasteur came on the scene, wine was more about making vinegar than stable wine! I argue that fortification, the creation of glass bottles and the development of natural cork closures were the only significant technological advancements during this era. Over the past century, discovery of various microbes and processes responsible for fermentation and stabilization of wine entered our awareness.
During the past few decades wine technology hit warp speed. By some wine is viewed as an ancestral beverage which should be treated as it was in the times of antiquity, by others as a medium in which to apply the latest in technological advances, and naturally the majority are somewhere in between. History’s mystics most likely felt a loss on innocence when yeast strains responsible for alcoholic fermentation were discovered and isolated. Many must have preferred chalking it up to the will of the gods or natures magical reward for a day of hard work.
Romance certainly permeates perceptions of viticulture. Wine growing is ripe with pastoral images of vineyard vistas, pensive and attentive farmers with a connection to nature. Agricultural technology has come a long
way but far from unheardof are the use of sheep for grazing vineyards and horses for ploughing them in contemporary vineyards. Harvesting around the world is often done by hand, as are many other vineyard
tasks. These evoke a sense of return to the ancestral and a harmonious tuning into nature. It may come as a surprise to some that these time-honoured methods of integrating animals into vineyards are implemented to mow some of the largest commercial vineyards of New Zealand, while many Bordeaux Chateaus still utilize horses to plough between rows and simultaneously use drone surveillance and robotic vineyard tools to monitor
vine vigour, stress, fruit ripeness and hosts of other fascinating tasks. Perhaps the use of satellites to monitor
vineyard growth erodes the romance of the final product but the information it provides viticulturists with is invaluable in growing ever better fruit.
Winemaking frequently flirts with romance, but perhaps advents in science can diminish the romantic notions of wine. Many decisions are instinctual and often require patience but technology has allowed production to be very measured and precise. Laboratories exist that test every chemical compound in wines so winemakers can make informed decisions. Commercial yeasts allow for predictable and reliable fermentations. Various strains of Malolactic bacteria exist to ensure the stability and lower acidity of wines. Processes exist which accomplish everything from the removal of alcohol from a finished wine with reverse osmosis, to the calculated addition of minute levels of oxygen to soften the tannins of structured reds to render them supple upon release.
The guarantee of a shelf stable and consistent product could be interpreted as homogenizing the
individuality of a wine thus diminishing the romance, but two things insure stability and consistency — time and technology. With patience and no financial cashflow pressures, some of the greatest wines in the world achieve stability with nothing but time. When winemakers don’t enjoy the luxury of time, they rely on advents in the form of fining agents. By matching certain unstable or undesirable compounds with an appropriate agent, winemakers can essentially accelerate the processes of time to achieve stability usually in a matter of days. Fining agents include bentonite clay, egg whites and proteins found in milk; used properly they are untraceable in the finished wine. It’s plausible to assume adding egg proteins to a wine is peeling back the curtain a little too far, but what if said egg whites originate from chickens that graze in the vineyard, or are from the farm next door?
Wine’s storied past permeates history. Artists, scholars, theologians and the like have long waxed poetic about the most important beverage in history. Much has changed since its discovery; winemakers continue to explore the unlimited potential for enjoyment and wonder of wine as it continues to evolve with us.
There is still much to learn about wine as we continue to be enchanted and inspired by its infinitely expanding possibilities and forms. It’s fair to say that wine has stolen my heart.