Concentrate! In Praise of the Old, the Cold and the Shrivelled
“In days of old (when knights were bold) and Bordeaux rouge was claret …”
Um, okay, I came up with a positively outré rejoinder to this limerick, but realizing it had substantially less than a remote chance of seeing the published page, I ditched it. (Its rhyming couplet suggested an act involving a parrot that would have mortified ornithologists — and decent folk everywhere. Certainly no way to expand the “subscriber base,” as it were.) But I actually was going somewhere with it.
You see, back before the advent of wine scores, gobs of extract and the generally laughable charge being asked for them today, the red wines of Bordeaux were not the opaque 13 to 14 per cent alcohol, oak-seasoned fruit monsters they’ve since morphed into. In fact, they were rather light and pale — almost rosé-ish. The British derived the term “claret” from the French word clairet to describe these pallid tipples.
In years when the claret was a soupçon too claire, the ever-inventive Bordelaise would dump a bucket or four of dense, robust Syrah-based Rhône wine into their vats to buttress the hue and body. The practice was known as “hermitaging” (after the red Hermitage wine) and it was/is but one of many creative techniques winemakers use to enhance the power and concentration of their wares.
Exacting more extract is a goal of practically every winemaker, particularly those working in cooler climes. And while there are various techniques that can be employed in the winery to concentrate a wine’s aroma, colour and body (we’ll get to those), the most “natural” way to get a concentrated wine is to start with concentrated grapes. And to get those you typically want to restrict the amount of fruit the vine bears and limit the amount of water contained within the grapes that remain.
Left to its own devices, a vine will attempt to produce as much fruit as it can. (I believe this is what being “fruitful” is all about.) The problem with a whole lot of fruit is that the minerals and nutrients sucked out of the usually not-so-rich soil have to be divvied up more or less equally among the whole crop. While it’s nice to see the vine being so fair in its resource allocation, there are only so many nutrients to go around. It stands to reason that if the vine’s fruit load is reduced, the nutrient value delivered to the fewer berries will be greatly enhanced. And if you can thicken the skins and reduce the water, you’ll pump up things up overall.
“For red wines, the best way to achieve concentration is in the vineyard,” confirms German Lyon, winemaker for Chile’s Viña Perez Cruz. “Here, the main objective is to increase the skin-to-pulp ratio by producing smaller berries. To do this we use a number of techniques including green harvesting.”
Green harvesting or green pruning — or vendange verte if you happen to be a French vigneron — involves cutting off select clusters after fruit set (when pollinated flowers are “set” to become berries) has occurred. At this point the winemaker will have a good idea of what the crop is looking like in terms of volume. Sure, you get less raw material to work with (= less product = less sales = less money), but the concentration and complexity of the remaining fruit will allow you to craft the “massively saturated, prodigiously-extracted hedonistic liquid porn” that lonely-but-hopeful oenogeeks simply must have (= less product = insane scores = insane demand = insane price = insane buyers = loads of money for you = movie rights = meet Katie Holmes = possibly have your first ride aboard an alien spacecraft …).
As an aside, I hold a similar view with regard to brain cells: let ‘em grow unchecked and you’ll have plenty but they’ll be dilute, lazy and ultimately socialist. Pruning them back a bit will result in fewer highly concentrated, deep-thought-provoking specimens. The medical community, surprisingly, has been reluctant to get on board with this theory (or to provide a sizeable research grant to explore it further), but I’m confident it’ll come around. I mean look, if you want to argue that Hunter S. Thompson penned lines like, “Call on God, but row away from the rocks” with a full, bushy, natural mane of uncropped synapses, be my guest. On the other hand, he — and I — might be living examples of how certain things that look good on paper can tank severely when tested.
respect for elders
In any case, age can also reduce the volume of buds — and brain cells. Astute followers of the grape (you, for example … and perhaps Hunter S.) are no doubt familiar with the term “old vines.” Older vines produce less fruit, but the fruit that ripens is typically more concentrated and complex in terms of aromatic and flavour compounds. And, as Antonio Bravo, winemaker at Chile’s Viñedos Emiliana points out, “Old vines concentrate more phenols compared to young vines and the root system explores deeply into the soil, which adds complexity because of the different elements that the soil strata contains.”
So how old is “old”? Though there’s no legal — or even universally recognized — definition, it has been shown that vines over 20 years tend to start producing smaller crops. There are Zinfandel vines in California over 125 years old and Shiraz in Australia’s Barossa Valley over 160. No doubt, even older vines can be found scattered throughout the world, but their commercial relevance is probably negligible.
high on dry
Since preventing too much water from getting into the grapes is a good way to concentrate the fruit and subsequent wine, it’s reasonable to conjecture, then, that removing water that has found its way in will give similar results. This can be achieved naturally via the water-sucking effect of Botrytis cinerea (aka “noble rot”), or by allowing the fruit to freeze on the vine and separating out the water during pressing, as done with Icewine. It can also be done in the winery using both traditional and not-so-traditional practices.
Though the Italians aren’t historically the only ones to pioneer dried-grape wines, theirs are arguably the best-known. The red Recioto della Valpolicella (sweet) and Recioto della Valpolicella Amarone (dry) both use dried grapes (ripasso wines being an offshoot of this process), as does the white Recioto di Soave. Tuscany’s famed Vin Santo is also made from white grapes that have been air-dried either on mats or hung from rafters for maximum air circulation. Niagara, Ontario’s The Foreign Affair Winery employs the appassimento technique used in the production of Recioto wines throughout its entire range of red and white offerings.
However, just as there is more than one way to skin a cat, other (perhaps somewhat more controversial) methods of inducing the Big Shrivel exist. One is cryoextraction — artificially freezing fruit. This technique has been used in the Sauternes region of Bordeaux since 1980, and is also called on to make New Zealand “Icewine” and a handful of other oddball numbers — consider Vin de Glacière from California’s Bonny Doon Vineyard and Québec’s cidre de glace. But the “Sheer Inventiveness in Winemaking – Dried Grape Category” award goes to Niagara’s Reif Estate Winery.
“Reif began a project last year that involves concentrating fruit using tobacco kilns,” reveals winemaker Roberto DiDomenico. “This is a new tool which is showing promising results. The kilns offer us great flexibility and control. We hope to experiment further and release some products [made using dried grapes] in the next couple of years.”
Okay, “kilning” grapes is so new that nobody (yet) has gone nutball about it being “unnatural.” Yet things do get controversial when you move into the more common — and more shadowy — world of reverse-osmosis machines, spinning cone fermenters, must concentrators and vacuum distillers. I’m not going to go into huge detail about how these processes work, because it would take a separate story. Also because I don’t know how they work and finding out would take an amount of effort I am not prepared to expend. Suffice to say, they all aim at one target: pumping up wimpy wines. For those so inclined to learn the awful truth I would suggest they a) refer to Jamie Goode’s excellent work The Science of Wine From Vine to Glass and b) take up a hobby or something.
Little is known about how many respected wineries actually employ such technology to give what Mother Nature has denied (aka cheating), but suffice to say there are plenty. Goode quotes one source who claims that, as of 2005, over 60 Bordeaux estates were using reverse-osmosis machines and double that number were relying on vacuum concentrators. And that’s just in one region, in one country. Ironically enough, the technology used in more marginal regions to buff up wines is also used in warmer districts to reduce alcohol levels.
Whether or not you actually care what a winery does behind closed chais depends on your personal level of Machiavellianism. Winemakers, however, are always concentrating on concentration. “Concentrating fruit is a constant challenge, and we will continue to experiment and use all the tools available,” Reif’s DiDomenico emphasizes. And though I would be the first to raise a glass to the old, the cold and the shrivelled, the best way to concentrate wine, in my books, is to distil it. Brandy, anyone?
Ken Forrester Vineyards Chenin Blanc 2008, Stellenbosch, South Africa ($18.95)
Ken Forrester has some of the oldest Chenin Blanc vineyards in Stellenbosch. Fruit for this wine was hand-harvested from low-yielding, 35-year-old vines, fermented in both oak and tank and barrel aged on lees for nine months to add complexity. Intense aromatics hinting at beeswax, honey, melon and baked apple and delicate mineral notes. Melon, honey, candied lemon and MacIntosh apple in the mouth with seamless balance and a persistent, honeyed finish.
Bodegas Castaño “La Casona” Old Vines Monastrell 2007, Yecla, Spain ($8.90)
Sourced from 40 to 60-year-old Monastrell (aka Mourvèdre, aka Mataró) vines. Opaque ruby/purple in colour. Tobacco leaf, smoky plum, wet slate, black cherry yogurt and black pepper on the nose. Ripe, dense, blackberry/blueberry flavours with soft tannins and a hint of spice on the finish. Nice price.
Malivoire Old Vines Foch “Albert’s Honour” 2008, Niagara, Ontario ($24.95)
Along with Bacco Noir, Maréchal Foch is one of the best performing Ontario hybrids, especially when harvested from gnarly old vines like the 30-plus-year-old ones tended by Malivoire. Violet-hued with aromas of smoky mocha, chocolate, black berry/black raspberry and a hint of vanilla, it offers up a smoked meat and coffee-tinged palate with a hit of cassis. The texture is chewy, the finish long and the balance admirable. One of Ontario’s most unique reds.
Domaine Pinnacles Cidre de glace, Quebéc ($29.95/375 ml)
A blend of six different varieties of apples hand-harvested after the frost and (I’m told) cryoextracted for additional concentration. This stuff smells and tastes like home-made applesauce, spiced with cinnamon and sweetened with honey. Sweet, viscous and ultra intense yet with enough acidity to leave the palate refreshed rather than fatigued. Very unique … and very tasty.
Lakeview Cellars Vidal Icewine 2007, Niagara, Ontario ($19.95/200 ml)
Deciding which of the many Canadian Icewines to review was rather daunting so I decided to go for Ontario’s best seller, that being Lakeview’s. Forward orange marmalade, caramel and candied peach aromas transform into similar flavours in the mouth with an added dash of cinnamon and clove. Perfectly balanced (intensely sweet without being cloying thanks to a solid spine of acidity) with a long apricot jam finish. Serve well-chilled as a dessert course.
Château de Soucherie Coteaux du Layon “Cuvée S” 2002, Loire Valley, France ($18.95)
From botrytis-affected Chenin Blanc grapes comes this delicious sweet white. Quince jam, dried apricot, marmalade, buckwheat honey and that certain je ne sais quoi displayed by grapes naturally concentrated by “noble rot.” Rich, unctuous and sweet with layers of apricot, peach compote and grilled pineapple. Exquisitely balanced with a persistent, refreshingly acidic finish. Fantastic value for a wine that will easily age another ten to fifteen years and probably beyond.
The Foreign Affair Winery Riesling 2007, Niagara, Ontario ($28)
This Riesling, fermented with a portion of partially dried grapes to increase the overall power and density, is from the warm 2007 vintage. It shows characteristic petrol, white peach and floral notes that carry on to the palate with fresh peach, lemon and mild herbal/anise notes. Nicely balanced with a memorably long, lime-zest finish.
Tommasi “Ripasso” Valpolicella 2008, Veneto, Italy ($19.85)
Halfway between the light fruitiness of regular Valpolicella and the port-like Amarone, Tommasi’s “Ripasso” gains power and complexity through a refermentation on the skins of the dried grapes used for its Amarone. Ripe, slightly raisin-like aromas buttressed by some sweet plum, black cherry and dark chocolate overtones segue to a moderately rich, warm and supple mouthfeel. Flavours of dark berry, plum jam and mild port-like sultana raisins dominate with complexity added by dashes of cedar, liquorice and leather. Moderately complex and superbly balanced.