|Does wine really taste like the vineyard?|
We talked about "manipulation" of wine at the International Cool Climate Chardonnay Celebration -- the perfect varietal for the topic.
And I discovered my palate isn't as purist as I might have thought.
Chardonnay is the greatest white grape in the world, depending on how you feel about Riesling. There aren't any other serious candidates. But wine lovers rarely speak of Chardonnay with the respect it deserves, even though we acknowledge the heights it can reach in Burgundy and Champagne and the Sonoma Coast and elsewhere.
That sense of manipulation is part of the reason. We expect other great grapes -- Pinot Noir and Syrah, for example -- to taste "varietally correct." But we don't have a real sense of what great Chardonnay is supposed to taste like.
Chardonnay is as sensitive to its terroir as any grape, but we expect winemakers to do more with it -- and to it. Many good Chardonnays taste at least a little of oak. Leesiness matters, but most lees-handling is intervention. We feel the winemaker's hand at work in a great Chardonnay, even when it's from a Burgundian who says, "I just let nature give us what it will."
I discovered at the seminar that I like the taste of two products dumped into the tank: gum arabic, and Oenolees MP, an extract of burst yeast cells. Both enhance the mouthfeel of wine.
Niagara College professor Ron Giesbrecht, a longtime winemaker, prepared four samples of mediocre Chardonnay with different additions, and asked an audience of wine professionals which one we preferred.
Only two of 250 people preferred the sample with no "product" dumped in it. The rest of us split about evenly. Some liked the one I did, with the mouthfeel amplified. I wouldn't say the products made it a great wine, but I would have drunk it.
Some liked the sample that soaked in three kinds of oak chips (branded "Sweet," "Intense" and "Spice.") And some liked the sample with added tannins derived from chestnuts.
Even the base Chardonnay wasn't "pure." Giesbrecht added sugar before fermentation, something commonly done in Burgundy, but rarely discussed.
If you told Cabernet drinkers that their wine had gum arabic and Oenolees MP in it, many would say, "Tastes great! Add more." Some Pinot Noir drinkers would snort and complain that the taste of terroir was being lost. Chardonnay drinkers? I don't think so. We don't seem to talk seriously very often about Chardonnay, even though it's the most popular wine in the U.S. and its high-end greatness is unquestioned.
One could argue that all winemaking is manipulation, starting in the vineyard long before the crucial decision of how and when to pick the grapes. Do you put the grapes in stainless steel or oak barrels? How long do you leave the wine there?
Maybe I would have most liked a wine made from grapes where the farming allowed them to be picked at a ripeness level that wouldn't have needed a sugar adjustment. However, once a winery brings in grapes that are imperfect, it's not going to throw them away and write off a year's work. It has to sell that wine to somebody.
Given the choice, I would order a wine without Oenolees MP in it. But maybe I wouldn't like it. We talked about this topic for 45 minutes, but you could talk about it all night, because it's a good, open-ended question with no easy, universal answer.
What does "manipulation" of wine mean to you?