Each type of wine grape has its own unique characteristics. Some grapes are known for making elegant, soft elixirs, and others are known for making big, bold food wines. For some reason, rich wine tastes better in the cooler weather. Trusting the gods to bless us with a northern wind, we’re turning to taste bold wines this November.
Keep in mind that nature’s work is only part of the process! Winemakers also have major influence in the final product. Using certain techniques, winemakers can produce rich, bold wine from a typically mild grape (like Pinot Noir), or make elegant, restrained wine from an otherwise very-bold variety (like a Petit Verdot rosé). The grape itself provides raw material for the winemaker to work with. The winemaker (and her team) can choose to emphasize a grape’s natural tendencies or toil to disrupt expectations and produce a unique product.
In my opinion, the best winemakers respond to growing conditions and each vineyard’s natural strengths to produce great regional wine. I think the best wines are made when their makers cooperate with nature. We have examples of both this month, as our focus is on a particular tasting experience, rather than a certain tradition or variety.
Winemakers love making bold wines because they have big flavors and a rich mouthfeel. They hit hard right away with big flavor, coat your mouth like heavy cream, and stick around for a looooong time. Yum! A few ways to give wine body and richness are pruning, extraction, and the use of oak barrels.
By pruning grape plants before they fruit (or halfway to ripeness), vintners eliminate the number of grapes a plant must support. This means all the energy and resources are forced into fewer grapes. The result is a more opulent wine, but a much lower overall yield. The vintner is now working with fewer, but much more highly concentrated grapes. This kind of selective pruning usually means a wine will cost more, simply because pruning lowers the amount of wine available that year. The expression “beauty is pain” applies pretty well here; the harder a plant has to work to produce fruit, the better the end result. A great example is the complex red wines of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, where tough, gnarly vines struggle to grow right out of rocks and pebbles. Yields are very low, but the end product is some of the most opulent, rich wine out there. The plant worked very hard to produce fruit, so all available resources are concentrated into the few dark grapes that grew.
Another way wine grows bold is by an extra-thorough extraction. Every wine is “extracted” from the grape by two main steps: pressing and maceration. Pressing means squeezing the juice out of the grape, and maceration is when the juice sits with the skins to absorb all that flavor, color, and texture. Winemakers must strike a balance here, but can crank up extraction to force boldness into a wine. Think of black tea. If you steep it for 2 minutes, you get a balanced, subtle cup. Leave it out for an hour, and it drinks about as well as sandpaper. More of the compounds from the tea leaves have seeped into the water, making for a stronger, bolder cuppa. Same idea here, except with pressed grape skins (also called “must”) instead of tea leaves.
Finally, oak plays a big part in how bold a wine is. Three key factors determine the oak’s influence on the final product: time spent in the barrel, the age of the barrel, and barrel size. Time is pretty self-evident: More time, more oak flavor. More oak flavor, bolder wine. This can be abused, however. Lots of chardonnay from California spends so much time in barrels that the wine’s natural flavors are lost in an ocean of butter and vanilla cream. Depending on the drinker, this could be desirable or undesirable result. Secondly, the age of the barrel, or barrique. If the winemaker decides to use brand-new (first-use) barrels, the final product will carry much more oak flavor than wine from third- or fourth-use barrels. Yes, winemakers trade and recycle barriques for the first few uses. After that, most of the flavor is gone, and they get sold to distilleries. Finally, winemakers can control “boldness” with the size of the barrique. The smaller the container, the more oak gets into the wine, because more of the wine is touching the barrel, relative to the amount of wine in the barrel. Wine barrels vary in size from 30 gallons to 30,000. The winemaker has to make lots of decisions about oak, and anything out of balance can produce really undesirable results.
A lot of factors influence the winemaker’s final product. Hopefully, the winemaker can navigate the hundreds of decisions required to produce wine, and end up with a balanced, powerful, delicious product. Come try some! Every Thursday in November, EXCEPT Thanksgiving. I’ll see you there.