Winemaking: Art or Science? This was one of the essay questions that came up when I sat the Master of Wine exam. Having just completed the 2019 harvest at our three domains in Pomerol, Saint Emilion and Castillon, crunching numbers and going back to my school chemistry lessons has been an essential part of the 2019 harvest.
The first challenge was the delicate balancing act between ripeness and alcohol (I remember only a few years ago how the tightrope was strung out between ripeness and rot). Climate change has given us dry, hot summers which concentrate the grapes so that they look like little berries and push the sugar levels up well beyond our comfort zone. This isn’t the same as Donald Trump’s comfort zone, however, whose ludicrous trade tariffs imposed on wines that were under 14% alcohol beggars belief. We measured the potential alcohols, we tested the IPT levels (index of polyphenols including tannins which are an indication of ripeness) and we considered the chemical repercussions of fermenting that amount of sugar.
French administration (a phrase that strikes terror into most of our hearts) insists that we record every winemaking step, every addition to the wine must (including oxygen), every analysis and every laboratory report. A computer has become an important addition to even the most rudimentary of cellars. All of this number crunching can have a tendency to take away some of the poetry of winemaking. We are so occupied at recording the curves on the graph made by the yeasts as they convert the sugars into alcohol, that we can forget the magic behind the chemistry. But the magic is there, and luckily it hits us broadside as we open the heavy oak cellar doors and inhale the heady aromas of winemaking. We’re back. We are once again alchemists somehow nudging those grapes towards a vintage wine that hopefully will delight our customers for decades to come and will draw along with it so many adventures and stories.
Looking back on the last month, it is the aromas that I will remember most. The warm, chalky smell of the baked earth in September; the metallic precision of the first 20 millimetres of rain that rescued the harvest by washing off the drought dust and pepping up the acidity levels; the buttery richness of brioche as the yeasts began their work; the spicy ebullience of the Merlot grapes as their skins cracked open to reveal hearts of violets, cherries and cassis; the sapid, minty, cleanness of the pine needles from our trees that carpeted the ground after a severe gale; the murky, oily, smoky fumes of our old tractor as it lumbered up to the winery; the toasty, toffee sweetness of freshly made new oak barrels as they are rolled into place. These smells are our ‘madeleines’ that evoke such vivid memories.
Yes the science is there and necessarily so but even our Aussie guest winemaker cannot help to be bowled over by the sheer seductiveness of Pomerol fruit. We have a feeling that in spite all her oenology and chemistry, she too will eventually succumb to the sensual art of smelling, seeing, touching, hearing and tasting the arrival of a newborn wine. And so it turns out to be.
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