The ripeness, as I'm sure somebody has already noted somewhere, is not all. I have been making much of ripeness of late -- in particular, of the way reverse osmosis can be used to remove excess alcohol from a wine (the result of excess sugar in a grape). This allows vineyard managers to let grapes hang until they have achieved true physiological ripeness, measured not by sugar concentration, but by titratable acidity, pH, and tannin quality. A tannin that ripens and softens on the vine is a tannin that will not have to ripen and soften during several years in the bottle.
That's not to say that you can just let 'em hang, says Clark Smith, founder and co-owner of Vinovation. Among other things, Vinovation provides alcohol-adjustment services to hundreds of wineries, so it's not as if he's opposed to vine-ripened tannins. Still, he warned in a recent post to wine guru Jancis Robinson's website, "The result of excessive hang time is wine with grungy flavors, excessive alcohol, and little longevity. The hang-time approach was made popular by our Australian fellow travelers, who use it with great skill to make soft, friendly wines in an industrial cellar for early consumption." Still, he argues, "There are much more gentle and sophisticated methods to refine the hard tannins which characterize properly ripe red grapes."
Clark tells me that "When the Australian revolution first got started, we basically characterized the wines as user-friendly -- rich and powerful in an easy-to-pound-down way. In retrospect, I think we look at it as having failed to produce great wines; they kind of hit a glass ceiling at around $15 a bottle. Not that there aren't any great wines out of Australia -- certainly Grange Hermitage is a pretty nice wine -- but mostly, you don't look to Australia if you're going to spend over $40 a bottle. They had a formula," and hang time was part of that formula.
"When I look at that now," continues Clark, "I feel like they're missing a trick, because they're trying to cook outdoors. It's better to just let the chicken do its job, and then bring the egg inside and cook it in the kitchen. I like to cook on a campfire, but I wouldn't want to try to make a soufflé on a campfire. You've got pretty subtle things going on, and it's better when you can really control them. We tell our growers" -- Smith also makes wine, both for research and for sale -- "to give us fruit that is ripe but not overripe. We want the maximum amount of color and tannin, but we want it to still be reactive. We don't want it to start to cook on the vine."
As Clark explains himself, the food analogies begin to fly. "The Incans taught the Belgians that the way to turn cocoa powder into chocolate is by working fat and oxygen together. You end up with something that is no longer harsh and nasty -- now, it's dark chocolate. Then, if you want to make something that's rounder and more appealing, you can add vanilla and milk protein and make milk chocolate from the dark chocolate." The base chocolate is able to take up and integrate the added flavors into itself.
Before he gets from chocolate to wine, he returns to the soufflé he mentioned earlier. "When you make a soufflé, you separate it into the yolk and the white -- you can't have any yolk present when you whip the white, because the fat would quench the reaction, screw up the surface tension of the white. You take a wire whisk, and you whip the white into this light structure -- the white takes on air. Once the structure is complete, you can fold the yolk back in to add richness. When you're done, you end up with something superior to a scrambled egg, in that it has the ability to integrate flavors" -- say, chocolate (just to muddy the metaphorical waters).
Now we come to the micro-oxygenation of wine, the practice of releasing tiny bubbles into wine in an effort to improve its quality -- particularly, the quality of its tannins. Clark says that micro-oxygenation, or microx, is "the winemaker's equivalent of a wire whisk. The wines consume the oxygen the way the egg white takes up air, and the tannins are transformed from the hard stage into this rich, light structure." The practice was developed in 1990 by Patrick Ducournau, a French wine researcher. "He was trying to keep Tannat, the traditional grape of Madiran, from being pulled out and substituted with Merlot."
The problem: Tannat is an extremely tannic grape. "He started looking at why people planted this stuff at all, and somehow it occurred to him that maybe the stainless steel and inert gas and German -- read: sterile and completely oxygen-free -- winemaking techniques were keeping this grape from evolving. If he could figure out a way to bring in oxygen without causing oxidation, maybe the tannins would develop into something beautiful." Because the process can be so carefully regulated -- you release only as much oxygen into the wine as you want -- it serves as the Viking range to the vineyard campfire in the indoor/outdoor cooking analogy.
Master of wine Bill Nesto has a piece at BeverageBusiness.com that gives some of the science behind the talk of beauty and evolution. "Micro-oxygenation drives a two-step process that creates condensed polyphenols." (Tannins are phenolic polymers.) "First, oxidative coupling produces hydrogen peroxide, which oxidizes a trace amount of ethanol into acetaldehyde. Next, acetaldehyde is involved in the condensation of anthocyanins and tannins." This condensation of tannins reduces their harsh effect on the palate -- just as it does in the transformation of cocoa into chocolate. "The wine will have more body, more volume in the mouth." The condensation also changes the way the tannins taste -- in part, says Clark, because they have now formed a structure akin to the egg white in the soufflé. They can take up other flavor compounds more effectively. "You start to get aromatic integration; the wine begins to speak with a single voice."