La Dolce Vita: Hi tech vs. low tech

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Can Harvesting Data Make Better Wine? That was the title of a magazine (Food & Wine) article by Jon Fine that caught my attention recently. The subject is something of an ongoing debate in the wine business — how much does the use of technology contribute to the making of better wine?

It isn’t a debate that is going to be resolved in one article (or one column, for that matter) but it is interesting to consider just how much technology is used in modern wine making, and what role old practices, and art, continue to play.

In the vineyard, mechanical harvesting of grapes has been around for a long time but, obviously, design advances in the harvesters have made mechanical picking much more gentle. Winemakers who are looking for quality want undamaged fruit arriving at the winery. Around the world, though, many wineries boast that their grapes are hand-picked, which allows for rotting clusters to be discarded and unripe ones to be left on the vines. Grapes for high-end wines might be picked in several stages, with pickers moving through the vineyards several times over a period of weeks, selecting only the ripest for harvesting on each pass.

In the winery, gentle handling continues. Pressing grapes is now largely done by inflating bladders. It’s a large leap from the old screw press familiar to backyard wine (and apple juice) makers.

Pressed juice has to be moved several times as it is turned into wines. Fermentation typically takes place in stainless steel storage tanks, which are now typically temperature controlled, allowing the winemaker to maintain optimal temperatures throughout the fermentation process. But more and more wineries are being designed to allow gravity to replace pumps, so that wine moves through hoses without mechanical help. It’s hard for most of us to think of juice being “bruised” as it is pushed through tubes with the aid of pumps, but that is exactly what many winemakers believe they are avoiding with gravity systems.

Many red wines, and some whites — notably Chardonnay — get some of their characteristic flavours by being aged in oak barrels. While barrel-making obviously has benefited from modern power tools, it remains labour intensive industry. The effect of the oak on wine has many variables — new wood imparts more intense flavours, the size of the barrel determines how much contact the wine has with wood, different types of oak (or the same varieties from different region) have their own unique flavours. While some makers might be satisfied to simply add oak chips or strips into wine in steel containers, most opt for the traditional barrels and use a mix of new and old ones so they have choices to select from as they blend the final product.

All along the winemaking process, testing takes place. It’s probably next to impossible now to find a winery that doesn’t have a lab set up in a corner. Makers use a combination of new and old testing methods to see where the fermentation process is and to check sugar, pH and acidity levels. At one winery in Fine’s article, the winemaker uses a spectrometer to measure key compounds, including tannins and antioxidants (one of which, quercetin, shows up in disproportionately high levels in high-scoring wines, according to a study).

Of course, even in the bottling process, technology versus tradition remains controversial. Many wineries have moved away from the traditional cork closures to plastic ones in the belief that they reduce or eliminate spoilage in the bottle. It will take decades, though, before the jury is in on whether plastic caps prevent fine wine from improving with age in the bottle — the tiiny air exchange that cork allows may well be a contributor to the quality of, say, a 30-year-old red Bordeaux.

While there is a good deal of science involved at every step of the way, art is always going to be a factor, I suspect. Winemakers rely on their own taste and smell senses as they blend from different barrels — some are aiming from consistency from one vintage to the next while others are aiming to get the absolute best flavour each year, blending different varieties and even different vintages to achieve their goal.

I like to think that we, as consumers, are getting the best from both worlds as science and art are both used to give us the finest possible products.

Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance.