The challenge for the modern winemaker

The 6th edition of the International Seminar on Successful Wines & Styles was held last week in Argentina. Twelve winemakers from around the world focused their lectures on how wines of the future should be, and the general consensus was fruity and sweet, with less oak and lower alcohol.

Erm, okay, but what if you want a dry, oaky, powerhouse red? Well, I don’t think their intention is to have all wines taste the same. The supermarkets are doing a good enough job of commercialising wine and we’ll leave them at it. I think this panel was simply trying to stress the importance of balance that can be achieved in the vineyard and in the winery.

“Care should be taken with the amount of oak, alcohol and over ripening. We have tasted many wines with a fruit base spoilt due to the excessive use of oak.”

Alastair Maling, New Zealand winemaker

Oak should be used to temper those young wines that are a little rough around the edges, or to impart flavours that complement all the other components of the wine. It shouldn’t be masking the greatness of terroir or of the variety itself.

Combating high alcohol in wines is a big challenge for the modern winemaker. With global warming, a warmer climate is causing riper fruit and ultimately higher alcohol. It’s a big test for winemakers in the worst affected regions. For years they may have relied on consistent temperatures and weather conditions. Now they have to watch their stock like a hawk. Pick too early and you won’t get the required flavour profile. Pick too late and you’ve got a high alcohol fruit bomb that 8 out of 10 of us won’t like.

“We have to respect our terroir, and if our climate changes, we have to change our varietal wines.”

Gilles Pauquet, French winemaker, speaking about Malbec in Argentina.

Scientists have been hard at work trying to better understand what exactly causes the early ripening of grapes. Warming, sunlight, soil moisture and vineyard management all play a role in grape maturation, but with new research conducted in Australia a more analytical approach can be used in vineyard management that will provide more control and minimise early ripening.

For example, by increasing irrigation or laying down mulch, growers can manage soil moisture and by changing their pruning regime, they can alter crop yields. Also, by choosing root stocks that are less sensitive to plant stress hormones, or trimming leaves, growers can alter the response of the vine to lower humidity.

It’s all pretty technical stuff, but if it means you don’t have to rip up that crop of Malbec five years down the line, it might be something worth paying heed to.

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