Tuesday, May 31, 2011

History and wine


Ξ MAY 30TH, 2011 

Which is more natural, the English Bulldog of the 19th Century or our modern model? The Belgian Blue of yesteryear or today’s Super Cow? Selective breeding has produced both. So too has it given us all of the plant crops upon which the world’s peoples depend. From roses to wheat.

“Domestication of plants is an artificial selection process conducted by humans to produce plants that have more desirable traits than wild plants, and which renders them dependent on artificial (usually enhanced) environments for their continued existence. The practice is estimated to date back 9,000-11,000 years. Many crops in present day cultivation are the result of domestication in ancient times, about 5,000 years ago in the Old World and 3,000 years ago in the New World. In the Neolithic period, domestication took a minimum of 1,000 years and a maximum of 7,000 years. Today, all of our principal food crops come from domesticated varieties.”

This is emphatically not genetic engineering or recombination in the post-modern sense. The domestication of plants and animals is as old as the primal scene of the first hungry dog wandering into a circle of paleolithic Homo erectus huddling around a campfire. Today the very survival of domesticated plants and animals is entirely dependent upon our collective political and agricultural will, however abstract. So it is with Vitis vinifera.

Abandon any cropland and it will be overtaken by suppressed local vegetation in a matter of years, if not in a single season. Which is also to say that this local biodiversity (as we now call it), just as with the ancients, must be vigorously controlled for the sake of the crop itself; the invasive and opportunistic species excluded, whether weed, insect, deer, wild boar, or pathogen.

The natural world is conjugated and extrapolated by the development of the agricultural. Moreover, agriculture is thehistorical engine of humanity’s advancement. So we may insist that there is no nature without human cultures maintaining such a distinction; just as we know there can be no concept of the future without a concept of the past, or that, for example, a formerly nondescript region of the brain is suddenly revealed through scientific research to be the center of language acquisition. Nature is what resists and remains, what tests the practical and creative limits of any given people.

When we look at a modern domesticated crop in situ, we see neat rows, a marvel of geometric planning and practical efficiency. Far from its meaning being exhausted by the principles of industrial agriculture, an ancient Egyptian would surely recognize the logic of the appearance of a Montana wheat field; but not its scale, or its disease-free quality and robust yield. So it is with a vineyard.

Trial and error. Domestication. Techné. So it follows that Cabernet Sauvignon, especially its many subtle amphilogical variations, exists as an international variety only through a long process of equally subtle cultural choices and selections. Nature would not and does not do it alone. Nature does not plant a vineyard of Pinot Noir. People do. And people plantwhat they know, what is culturally relevant and of practical use to them.

Let’s look for a moment at what is involved in the planting of a vineyard. First comes site selection and its soil analysis, counting heat days, determining drainage patterns and orientation. Next the land is cleared of competitive, undesirable vegetation, excavated, planted with specific rootstock grafted to chosen varieties. The soil is supplemented with mineral nutrients and fertility enhancements. As the vines grow, vineyard hygiene must be observed, the vines pruned, disease and pest management exercised, and the ever-rebounding local biodiversity, controlled. There is still much, much more to be done in a vineyard, but this is enough to illustrate my point.

All vineyard activities listed above are learned and repeated cultural practices and techniques, some of which were great historical discoveries, many are immemorial. It is thereforenot accurate to say, as some do, that in planting and managing a vineyard ‘we work with Nature’. No. We contest and forcefully redirect the processes of the natural world for our own purposes and ends. This we call viticulture. And I believe terroir is the word we use to describe a wine that in some small way defeats this contest and redirection. Put another way, a terroir wine exceeds the agricultural mastery of its originating vineyard. In short, terroir becomes possible when mastery fails. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

A winery may use amphorae, clay jars, oak, redwood, or chestnut barrels (there are other options), steel or concrete tanks, even t-bins, for fermentation. (We no longer use animal skins or tree hollows, but we could.) For the settling or aging of wines, a winery selects from among the same container technologies. Innovations are always welcomed. Further, we now better understand the chemistry of the resulting olfactory qualities each variety of container best promotes. But even a few generations ago this was not the case. Far from it. For millennia little attention was paid to anything other than the stability and preservation of the precious liquid within, how to prevent spoilage. A partial understanding of the agency of fermentation, yeast, would have to wait until Pasteur, for example.

There is much hand-wringing among the wine cognoscenti about yeast these days. Wild (read natural) or industrial (readartificial). Take your pick, for you see, there is no other choice. But all yeasts are both natural and artificial. As naturally artificial — to coin a phrase — as any Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir vine selected and propagated over time. For all yeasts (exclusive of ML01), whether used in the making of bread, beer, cheese, or wine, like rootstocks and grape varieties, Bulldogs and Belgian Blues, all are the products of oft times ancient events of domestication. Refinements to the consistent, practical isolation of yeast strains would come in the 19th Century.

From vol. 1 of Thomas Pinney’s magisterial A History of Wine In America.

Work on isolating and propagating “pure” strains of yeast was first successfully carried out by the Danish scientist E.C. Hansen in the 1880s, with results that allowed a higher degree of control over the process of fermentation never before possible. By 1891 the French researcher Georges Jacquemin had established a commercial source of pure wine yeasts, and within a few years their use had become a wide-spread commercial practice in Europe.

The first experiments with strains of pure yeast began in [UC] Berkeley in 1893, with striking results: “In every one of the experiments, ” Boletti wrote, “the wines fermented with the addition yeast were cleaner and fresher-tasting than those allowed to ferment with whatever yeasts happened to exist on the grapes.” Samples of pure yeast cultures were sent out to commercial producers in Napa, Sonoma, St. Helena, Asti, San Jose, and Santa Rosa, with equally positive results.
 [His reference is Boletti's summary in UC College of Agriculture, Report of the Viticultural Work during the Seasons 1887-93 published in 1896]

Mr. Pinney goes on to provide a perfect quote for our purposes.

As the distinguished enologist Maynard Amerine has written, the contributions of biochemistry to wine “have changed winemaking more in the last 100 years than in the previous 2,000,” delivering us from a state of things in which “white wines were usually oxidized in flavor and brown in color” and most wines were “high in volitile acidity and often low in alcohol. When some misguided people wish for the good old days of natural wines, this is what they are wishing for.” [Ohio Ag Research and Development Center, Proceedings, Ohio Grape-Wine Short Course, 1973]

Though the process of fermentation remained an unexplained mystery for the greater part of the history of our enchantment with alcoholic beverages, many cultures learned techniques to tilt its success in its favor, such as selecting for reuse only vessels that had successfully carried a fermentation to an acceptable result, or adding other fruits, figs and berries for example, known to promote the secret process. And with respect to the stabilization of a finished wine, Patrick McGovern writes in his Uncorking The Past,

Tree resins have a long and noble history of use by humans, extending back into Paleolithic times. [....] Early humans appear to have recognized that a tree helps to heal itself by oozing resin after its bark has been cut, thus preventing infection. They made the mental leap to apply resins to human wounds. By the same reasoning, drinking a wine laced with a tree resin should help to treat internal maladies. And the same healing properties might be applied to stave off the dreaded “wine disease” by adding tree resins to the wine.

Even the Romans added resins such as pine, cedar, terebinth (known as the “queen of resins”), frankincense, and myrrh to all their wine except extremely fine vintages. According to Pliny the Elder, who devoted a good part of book 14 of his
 Natural History to resinated wines, myrrh-laced wine was considered the best and most expensive.

After all the above we now might better understand why the ancients reused only selected vessels from season to season; why resinating wines was popular; why isolated yeast cultures were celebrated in 19th Century Europe and America; and why Mr. Amerine so harshly judged what he called ‘natural wines’. The answer is stabilization, including, but not limited to, bacterial sanitation and the prevention of runaway levels of volatile acidity. In short, spoilage, the winemaker’s ancient antagonist.

So why are we these days in the thrall of a return to ‘natural wines’, a return to the Jules Chauvet’s modest environmentalism, near universal among Western peoples the 1960s? For it is surely true that by dawning of the Age of Aquarius, pesticides, herbicides and a host of other industrial insults had made a fine mess of vast tracts of France’s wine growing regions. In a nation of chain-smoking vignerons, of an exalted nuclear power program, and struggling environmental movement, it is not difficult to understand Mr. Chauvet’s appearance in France. What is more difficult to understand is why he should make a difference to us now.

Nevertheless it is asked, “How can winemakers afford to take the risk?” The answer is very simple: Winemakers can take the risk because of the hard-won agricultural victories and associated technologies historically achieved, but which are now selfishly taken for granted. The natural winemakers of today benefit from the leaps and bounds in our modern understanding of biochemistry, viticulture, plant physiology and pathology, and winery sanitation. Never before have we known so much about the biological and physical processes involved. Yet often select terroirists refuse to admit it. For some there are only natural wines and industrial swill. This is a false, dishonest choice. Or perhaps, more charitably, we may say that rarely has an agricultural product been so poorly named. In either case, winemakers of today, but drinkers and connoisseurs as well, stand on the shoulders of generations of nameless farmers, experimenters, of researchers and their discoveries. Our extended family of the vine.

The concept of ‘natural’ wines, who might qualify as a producer of the same, has undergone what in realpolitik speak is called ‘mission creep’. In an effort to fire the imaginations of the greatest number of winegrowers, producers, influencers and consumers, the definition or parameters of what constitutes a ‘natural’ wine has in recent years been expanded to include the products of ‘organic’ and Biodynamic winegrowing, however negotiable those practices may be. Every movement — such as it is — needs all the friends it can get. (On a personal note, my work in Portugal has revealed numerous natural wines that have existed long before Jules Chauvet was a twinkle in his mother’s eye.)

But a parallel rhetoric has emerged that threatens to alienate the very wine producers that the natural wine movement needs most to win over: the conglomerates still heavily dependent on petrochemicals, pesticides and herbicides; excessive synthetic nitrogen applications, the subsequent pollution of streams and waterways, and the increasing use of GMOs in the wine industry. It is a rhetoric that can draw no qualitative distinction between pesticide use and tartaric acid additions (one shudders to think what some terroirists would have to say about ancient Roman myrrh or pine resin wine additives); it is a rhetoric that dithers over alcohol levels rather than a winery’s carbon footprint; a rhetoric that finds objectionable some quite arbitrary level of SO2 but whose program does not appear to reflect in any meaningful way on enhancing vineyard biodiversity.

Rather than debate the ludicrous notion that volatile acidity or brettanomyces are praiseworthy expressions of terroir, concerned wine writers of every shade of green ought to instead turn their collective attention to the big picture. The rest is medieval scholasticism.

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