Traditionalists believe that their wines are more individualistic, more honest — much truer expressions of varietal and terroir
Back from Germany the other day, Karl Pechatscheck, director of the Goethe Institut, presented me with a handsome bottle of white with the words, “I haven't tried it myself, but it is made by a winery well-known for making wine the traditional way.” I am not sure exactly what traditional winemaking methods are used by Ziereisen. Its website is not very forthcoming on detail beyond the declaration that the family-owned winery “minimises chemical treatments and filtration” and makes use of the traditions that “our ancestors passed along to us.”
A wine that is traditionally made may evoke nostalgic images of pretty young women stomping grapes in an open vats, but there is very little of that happening nowadays. Customary methods include a range of practices that include pressing whole clusters of grapes to extract juice, fermenting them in wooden tanks, using wild yeast for fermentation, and moving wine around the winery wherever possible by gravity rather than pumping.
Does processes like these make for better wine? Some do, yes. For instance, it is now more or less settled that there is much less intervention and manipulation in gravity-flow wineries, which handle sensitive varietals such as Pinot Noir with the kind of gentleness they require. As a result, many state-of-the-art wineries are gravity-fed.
But what about wild or natural yeast? Most wine lovers understand the role that oak plays in influencing the taste of wine, but yeast has possibly an even more powerful impact. If the wine is made entirely traditionally, then the fermentation would take place when the sugar in the fleshy tissue made contact with the natural yeast on the grape skins.
But the making of wine rarely happens with such innocent spontaneity nowadays. Since it's hard to predict how natural yeast will react — for instance, how quickly or slowly — the preferred option is to use cultured yeasts and enzymes to lend a certain constancy and predictability to winemaking.
Other modern winemaking innovations help in doing exactly the same. For example, controlled closed stainless steel tanks help regulate the rate of fermentation in a manner that open wooden vats cannot.
But the old versus new debate is not only about consistency. It is about taste as well. Traditionalists believe that their wines are more individualistic, more honest — much truer expressions of varietal and terroir. In their view, the new winemaking, with its plethora of interventionist technologies, have stripped the soul of the grape and resulted in easy-to-drink wines with overly smooth tannins and jammy fruit flavours. Whereas winemakers once facilitated the making of wine, today they manipulate it.
There is a larger story behind the manner wine is made — one that includes the entry of multinational corporations (such as Constellation and Diageo), hugely influential wine critics (notably, Robert Parker) and high-profile wine consultants (for example, Michel Rolland). But I'll keep that for another day.
And how good was Karl's bottle of Ziereisen Pinot Gris (Grauer Burgunder in German)? Bright and bracing, with strong hints of lemon, honey and sorbet, and a razor-sharp acid palate. This one seemed to fit Ziereisen's declared philosophy of making their wines in a “muscular” style, though not in the form of a “sumo wrestler but a decathelete.” Yes, of course I have drunk easier, creamier, softer. But this one had exactly what one expects of a terroir-driven wine — a robust and sincere character.