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The Alchemy of Winemaking Still Counts

By Stephen Eliot

Our “Best of the Blogs” recommendation this week is a thoughtful and, to our minds, a very well reasoned piece from Robert Joseph that should be required reading for all of those who have come to believe that they know the “right way” to make wine.1

It is ostensibly a defense of much vilified “wine consultants” such as Michel Rolland who are regularly and erroneously damned for making all wines taste the same, but it is, in fact, far more than that and questions the lofty idea that the best winemakers are hands-off stewards of terroir whose minimalist proclivities are at the heart of any fine wine, or what Joseph calls the “conceit that winemakers are simply creating accurate representations of the soil and climate in which their vines happen to be grown.” To this he says,

“This is of course a nonsense. Vines and soil have neither a brain, nor a voice. They cannot possibly reveal how they would like to be represented: as an 11.5% wine whose alcohol level needs to be boosted with a little sugar (the recipe for most great Burgundy and Bordeaux in the 1970s and 80s)? Or as a 14.5% blockbuster? Or something in between? Three critics might easily disagree over which of a trio of different versions of the same vineyard's wines is the most 'representative', just as a trio of artists will almost certainly differ over the best way to draw or paint the same landscape. Because, of course, winemakers are far from neutral players. They decide when to harvest and - in the case of red wine - how long to leave the wine on its skins after fermentation. They may also conclude that a 'green harvest'—the lopping off of unripe grapes a few weeks before the harvest will improve the quality and ripeness of the ones that remain. They might also allow some pre-fermentation skin contact, and they may age their wine in young or old wood—or cement or stainless steel—for a shorter or longer time before bottling. All of these decisions will rely on the winemaker having learned how and when to carry out the technique in question.”

We have long held and have regularly voiced our belief that great wine is the result of both people and place, and that winemaking talent cannot be ignored. The idea that a wine is somehow tainted or less “authentic” because that talent comes by way of advice from such capable folks as Rolland, Hobbs, Melka, Erickson or Mathiasson, et al, is myopic and foolish.

It all gets back to what is in the glass…nothing more and nothing less. Far too often, it seems these days, that a priori concerns for some elusive philosophical truth get in the way of seeing the forest for the trees, and this morning a tip of the CGCW hat goes to Mr. Joseph for an articulate, eminently worth-reading reminder of that simple fact.


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Who needs a winemaker
by Matt Smith
Posted on:4/13/2015 3:46:21 PM

Thanks for posting this Steve.  I hear the same thing frequently, especially from the general public at wine tastings.  The idea that a winemaker is not supposed to put his stamp on the wine is like saying a chef is not supposed to put his stamp on the food.  That a chef uses great ingrediants is fine, but do you want a plain steak with plain potatoes and green beans so that you can taste the expression of where each item comes from, or do you want them crafted and adjusted to perfection with seasoning and culinary craft.  I'll take the chefs meal with the winemakers wine if you please.

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