Wednesday, July 23, 2014

What does "manipulation" of wine mean to you?

Does wine really taste like the vineyard?
What does wine most taste like: the vineyard? The soil? The weather? The yeast? The barrels? The additives?

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?

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AlleahF said...

Manipulation to me involves what is added to the wine in the winery. Of course I prefer wine's without synthetic chemicals in the vineyard, but I don't consider that manipulation, I consider that more dirty than anything else.

I can be tricked into liking a wine with additives. But when I find out, I feel less excited about the wine. There are many farmers that produce less-manipulated wines that taste great, that is the wine I want! Taste is first and foremost... but purity is a close second. I become a repeat buyer if then, the price is also right. I'm not trying to protect the influence of the terroir, I'm just trying to limit synthetic additives in my body.

You may enjoy a blog post I just wrote called What is Natural Farming in the Wine World

Thanks for the candid post!

- alleah

Robert said...

If you did not know that he products were in the the Chardonnay, would you have been able to tell?
Majority of winemakers are trying to copy winning taste profiles and sell more wine and make more profit. If I can simulate lees aging in a fraction of the time, I might do it if the product tastes good and increases sales.
I particularly don't like Rombauer Chardonnay but they have a winning taste profile that people love. So I am going to try to get as close to it as I can, with any legal means necessary.

W. Blake Gray said...

Robert: That's a good question. I knew three of the four samples had additions (I didn't know all four were made from chaptalized grapes). So I couldn't un-know it.

I might have thought the wine I liked best simply had more lees stirring. It didn't taste unnatural to me.

Unknown said...

Alleah - The vast majority of wine additives are not synthetic; they are derived from very natural sources, many being derived from grapes themselves or by-products of the fermentation process. Mr Cartwright nails it in his comment. These additives are used to consistently hit a desired flavor profile, with a time and cost savings. They are most frequently used to make a $10 Chardonnay taste a little closer to what we expect of a $40 Chardonnay. Manipulation is seen by the producer as value added. And hopefully the product is profitable in a very competitive market. Yes, all this manipulation makes wine seem more like a commodity than an existential beverage experience that reflects a time and place. But few of us can afford that kind of Chardonnay on a regular basis. I can, however, recommend some great tasting $10 Chardonnays that can be consumed any day you like!

Bob Henry said...


An opportune time to bring back this column for renewed discussion?:

~~ Bob

Bob Henry said...


And see these related articles:

-- and --

~~ Bob

Chris Wallace said...

Terrific post, Blake.

To answer your question of “what does manipulation mean to me”, I have to start with what I think an un-manipulated wine is and then go forward from that base. The problem is that I don’t know what an un-manipulated wines is, or if it even exists. Wine is a man-made product. Fermented grape juice does not exist “naturally” in the world. It is the result of man meeting nature and taking Her base-work and then adding his work on to it. Nature gives us an un-organized tangle of vines. Man does the rest: planting in rows with proper spacing, training the vines with trellises, watering (sometimes), leaf thinning, chute thinning, green harvest, picking at the optimum time, bunch selecting, pressing, fermenting….etc. You get the idea: grapes grow by themselves, wine requires at least some intervention by man. With that much accepted, I would state the wine has become “manipulated” when the winemaker goes beyond doing the bare minimum to making proper-tasting wine. Which does not give you a bright line test and becomes very open to interpretation. Perhaps in a certain year acidification is required in a particular region. One winemaker adds just the right amount of tartaric acid and improves the wine’s balance. Good! But at the vineyard down the road they mis-judge and add too much and the wine tastes manipulated. The answer is in the tastes of the consumer. The same principal can be applied to the use of new oak barrels, late-picking, artificial yeast chosen, etc. The answer comes differently from each different consumer as to when they think the hand of the winemaker has become too obvious. For me, all of the vineyard techniques I know of, do not make the wine taste manipulated. It is the winery ones where I start to notice: excessive chaptalization, acidification are the two that come first to mind. Too much or too little barrel influence occasionally.

Nice to hear someone speak up for Chardonnay as a noble varietal. I heartily agree!

Bob Henry said...

The esteemed Joe Heitz fully came down on the side of winemaker intervention.

(See his interview with Bob Benson in the seminal book titled “Great Winemakers of California” circa 1977.)

Let me paraphrase his sentiment (I’m still looking for an authoritative source for the full quote):

“Mother Nature is a mean old bitch who, if she had her way, would turn wine into vinegar.”

And yet he alongside André Tchelistcheff at Beaulieu Vineyard (a fellow interventionist who was Heitz’s mentor) turned out the best wines of their generation.

The “take-away”: less emphasis on dogma . . . more emphasis on the actually hedonic drinking experience in the glass.

Chris Wallace said...

After reading your post I decided to pull a 2007 Chateau St Jean Reserve Chardonnay out of the cellar. To quote the back label: "...fermented in small French oak barrels and aged sur-lie for 17 months", this wine would have made Ms Fiering and any of the natural school wretch. But I loved it. Haters would definitely label this as manipulated. I thought it succeeded as a classically Californian, richly textured, intensely flavored wine that showed the winemakers hand but in a way that worked. Was anything added to this wine? I doubt it, but this was certainly not just "what the vineyard gave" kinda wine. "Manipulation" still has the ring of a pejorative to me, so I balk at using the term. But the hand of the winemaker was in evidence with this wine, and to my palate, in a good way.

Bob Henry said...

Excerpts from Decanter (May 24, 2013):

“Red Wines May Have Premature Oxidation Problems, Say Bordeaux Researchers”


By Jane Anson
Reporting from Bordeaux Denis

Dubourdieu, professor at the faculty of oenology (ISVV) in Bordeaux and author of a leading study into premature oxidation in white wines, told, ‘Ten years ago, many people were aware of the premature oxidation problem in white wines, but didn’t want to talk about it. For me, it’s a similar situation now with red wines.’

Dubourdieu points to the 2003 vintage as the most obvious example, although any very ripe vintages – such as 2009 – could be at risk.

‘And it is not limited to Bordeaux – any region that makes long-living red wines, from Tuscany to Napa, should be aware of the potential issues.’

Red wines have greater natural protection against premature oxidation, as the tannins and phenolics are natural buffers against oxygen.

‘But I have seen issues with a number of classified wines that are potentially storing up trouble for later,’ warns Dubourdieu. ‘The Right Bank is the worst affected because Merlot is so vulnerable.’

The warnings signs of premox in reds comes through the appearance of certain aroma markers such as prunes, stewed fruits and dried figs, and is often linked to a rapid evolution in colour, as with whites.

Dubourdieu, along with Valérie Lavigne and Alexandre Pons at the ISVV, has found two specific molecules – ZO1 giving the prune aroma and ZO2 giving a stewed fruit smell – that develop rapidly in the presence of oxygen.

The causes are numerous, Dubourdieu believes: harvesting later in a bid for riper grapes with low acidity, and winemaking practises including too much new oak barrels, or low doses of sulphur dioxide particularly when coupled with a high pH (over a pH of 4, SO2 loses almost all of its effectiveness).” . . .

‘These are practices that winemakers are doing with the best intentions,’ Dubourdieu said.

‘Riper grapes, new oak, low sulphur use – these are all things intended to improve the wine and to benefit the consumer.

But I would prefer to warn winemakers now that it’s possible to go too far, rather than say nothing simply to be politically correct.

W. Blake Gray said...

Confidential to B: I don't allow companies to promote their wines or other products in the comments. Sorry.