Clark Smith, founder and co-owner of the wine-consulting firm Vinovation, says he is a postmodern winemaker. He believes in modern technology, but it's only because he wants to make wines like they did in the old days -- back before modernity got ahold of winemaking and started pursuing consistency and stability above all else. Stability meant filtration to remove bacteria and excess tannin; it meant inoculated strains of commercial yeast; it meant absolute control from crush to bottling.
There was reason for all this emphasis on control. "Ask a winemaker why he doesn't use natural yeast and what will he tell you?" asks Smith. "He's afraid of stuck fermentation, but he's also afraid of volatile acidity." "Natural yeast" can mean "naturally occurring yeast, plus any number of other microorganisms," such as the bacteria called acetobacter. If acetobactor goes to work on the newly formed ethanol during fermentation, it can speed the process of oxidation that results in the production of volatile acidity. Boom -- your wine smells vinegary.
But Smith figured out that he could remove the acetic acid from wine by using a superfine filter to separate it -- along with water and alcohol -- from the rest of the wine. Pull out the acid with a water softener, recombine the elements, and your wine is saved. Suddenly, you don't have to worry so much about natural yeasts. This is technology taking you back to the old days.
And by "the old days" Smith means the really old days, though he's happy to start by stepping back a mere century and a half. In 1855, when France decided its wines were good enough to merit classification, "they didn't have stainless steel or inert gas. The reason we have them is to keep oxygen and spoilage factors away from the wines. They had more microbiological activity and more oxygen during elevage" -- the period of time when the winemaker shepherds the wine from fermentation to bottling.
So how did they keep the wine from spoiling? "They may have been able to prevent it by microbial competition rather than preservatives." The trouble nowadays, he thinks, is not that there are too many microbes, but rather too many of the wrong sort of microbes, with nothing around to stop them from taking over. "Too much sanitation can cause a sort of hospital-style disease environment. We try to foster a microbial equilibrium. That's something we're just now learning how to do. We're working on an integrated system called Grapecraft." "Integrated" here means that it takes account of the entire winemaking process. "Health in the vineyard is really important. You want to have a healthy fermentation that will gobble up all trace nutrients -- that will leave less for the spoilage bacteria. It's really just like integrated pest-management principles."
They also managed to manage their tannins without simply stripping them out of the wine. Tannins provide a home for many of the phenolic compounds that give wine its flavor and body, and they can also help to incorporate the complexities of flavor provided by microbes such as the Brettanomyces yeast. So...the more tannins, the better. The trick is getting your tannins to soften up to the point where they don't scrape the palate like so much sandpaper. Smith doesn't know quite how they managed this back in the day, but he points to the winemaking practices at Dominus. "They fall completely within the aesthetic that we seek. Back in 1855, they didn't add any yeasts. They didn't understand what was going on in fermentation. They crushed the grapes and put them in the tank -- and that's what Dominus does."
Smith conjectures that the olde-tyme winemakers "had a much more complex microbiology -- a whole bunch of different yeasts -- and that the fermentation proceeded much more slowly. Dominus wines go dry in February," where a more controlled fermentation might be finished by late October. "There's something about that slow fermentation that tends to create these enrobed tannins."
The technophilic Smith turned to micro-oxygenation instead of slow fermentation. "We're using new tools to create this plush, soft, round, velvety kind of tannin that, even in the 19th century, wines were famous for." Micro-oxygenation also aids in taming the wilder aspects of wines made via Grapecraft. "If you grow wine in living soil and facilitate trace mineral uptake, the wine starts behaving like a battery -- a reductive buffer. Both of these influences cause the wine to suck up oxygen. If it doesn't get any in the bottle, it'll make off aromas, like hydrogen sulphide. The more we pick grapes properly ripe, and the more we use organic principles to increase the complexity and the mineral dimension of wines, the more we're confronted with this problem. The wine is alive" -- it has an appetite for oxygen. "It has a lot of life force -- like testosterone. That means, when it's young, it doesn't taste very good. You can use oxygen to balance the wine, bring it into equilibrium."
So much for 1855. Now Smith has set his sights on a much more ancient winemaking culture: Rome. "We're doing a lot of work at getting away from sulfides," he says, referring to compounds which kill bacteria and wild yeasts. "William Younger wrote a book entitled Gods, Men, and Wine. He was inquiring into what the Phoenicians were doing, what the Egyptians were doing, what the Romans were doing. The people we know most about are the Romans. The evidence is pretty strong that they weren't using sulfides. They had them, but they didn't use them in wine." (Confession: your humble columnist hasn't read Younger's book, and has always gone by his Oxford Companion to Wine's report that both Cato and Pliny mention sulphur in connection with winemaking.)
"So," continues Smith, "we started making wines that way, and lo and behold, they had a lot more personality, a lot more proof that God loves us. I think sulfites are sort of deadening the wines." He admits that "trying to make wine without sulfites without having it spoil is a tricky business. We're just feeling our way." But, "with the ability to remove volatile acidity, integrate microbial characters, and balance reductive strength, we're opening the door more and more to growing grapes organically, getting away from sulfites, and recapturing what wine was when the Romans made it."