The Business and Science of Hedonism
Brian Clark, Editor
of the Vine, WSU
DeLille Cellars’ master winemaker, Chris Upchurch, recently told a visiting group of WSU viticulture and enology students that he thought premium red wines could be broken into two broad categories: the really good reds are either like steak, “big, juicy and simply delicious,” or like lamb, “complex but also delicious.”
Chris Upchurch, Executive Winemaker/Vineyard Manager, Owner/Partner, DeLille Cellars.
Upchurch was referring to the sensory qualities of red wines derived from a class of compounds called phenolics. Although Upchurch characterized science as being only “five percent of the winemaking process,” his palate is so well tuned to the chemistry of winemaking that the scientific processes he uses to adjust the sensory qualities of his wines have become second nature, muscle memory.
As Jim Harbertson and his colleagues point out in a paper published in the American Journal of Enology and Viticulture “Phenolics in red wine provide important sensory (aroma, astringency, bitterness, color) and chemical (antioxidant capacity) properties.” Those are the qualities that Upchurch praised when he told students that they were going into the business of “hedonism.” Wine, Upchurch reminded his audience, gives people pleasure; if it fails in that, then it fails completely.
The hedonistic qualities of wine have been the subject of anecdotal problem-solving practices for thousands of years. It’s only relatively recently that those practices have been subjected to the rigors of the scientific method. Harbertson is a member of an internationally recognized team of researchers at Washington State University who are investigating winemaking techniques. Harbertson is based at WSU’s Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center in Prosser. Other members of the team are based on the main campus in Pullman.
One of the problems winemakers face is fruit that undergoes extended ripening. Grapes that have gone through a long “hang time,” as vineyardists like to call it, may reach elevated Brix levels, which could possibly lead to a stuck fermentation. Brix is a measure of the sugar content in grapes, and sugar is the food yeast consumes in the fermentation process that produces alcohol and all those delicious flavor and aroma compounds we enjoy so much. Extra-ripe grapes are also smaller, meaning there is a higher-solids-to-juice ratio. And the phenolics we love are in the skin, part of the solids winemakers seek to take advantage of.
If there’s too much sugar, though, the yeast won’t have enough moxy to turn it all into alcohol. In the U.S. wine industry, Harbertson said, water may be added to reduce Brix and thus avoid a stuck fermentation. However, in order to enhance the phenolic components in wine, winemakers often prefer to maintain the increased solids-to-juice ratio that results from extended ripening or to simulate extended ripening by removing some of the juice before fermentation begins.
Removing juice is called saigneé, a French word that means “bleed.” Winemakers often employ saigneé in combination with water addition. This combination of techniques has the effect of increasing the amount of solids in proportion to juice thus reducing Brix while preserving the tannic potential of the juice. Not wanting to waste anything, the winemaker will often ferment the bled-off juice to produce a rosé or other light-colored wine.
Harbertson’s team previously assayed over 1,300 different wines from around the world, finding as much as a 30-fold difference in their tannin values. Additional research by Harbertson and others showed that the differences in tannin content in the skin and seeds of fruit are much smaller. This suggests, Harbertson said, that winemaking techniques play the leading role in determining the final tannin content of a wine.
The question, then, is what difference does the venerable technique of saigneé plus water addition play in a wine’s tannin profile? To begin to answer that question, Harbertson and his colleagues designed a commercial-scale winemaking experiment using Merlot grapes. The experiment tested a number of winemaking techniques. In addition to performing tannin assays on the wines, the team also subjected the finished wines to sensory analysis to learn what a trained panel of tasters perceived when experiencing the wines.
The results are interesting and appear to throw into question winemakers’ attempts to imitate nature. In their effort to simulate the tannic potential of small, very ripe berries, saigneé combined with water addition, Harbertson said, “is without merit from the perspective of phenolic and aroma/flavor enhancement.”
Does that mean winemakers shouldn’t employ these techniques? Not necessarily. As Harbertson points out, there are multiple factors that influence tannin extraction, and winemaking techniques are only one of them. “There remains a need to explore the nature of the extraction of tannins during winemaking,” Harbertson said.
Back in the cellar of DeLille’s Woodinville facility, Chris Upchurch told the WSU students, “You need to develop a technical palette.” That’s how winemakers serve the business of hedonism and surf the vagaries of what nature serves up in terms of fruit with which to work. It’s a discerning palette, he said, “that tells you about flaws, about fruit, about balance and everything else. The science will never be a limiting factor. But we make wine according to our palettes.”
Upchurch summed up the business of hedonism when he remarked to the student, “How sweet it is to stand in the shade of a grape arbor, swirl a glass of wine and be able to say, ‘Life does not suck’.” Cheers to that, maestro.