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“Tastes like cough syrup…” “Strong, sweet and medicinal…” These are the words scientists use to describe how the world’s first wines would have tasted.
Proverbs 23:32 describes early wine to “bite like a snake and poison like a viper”.
Doesn’t sound too tempting does it? So why did they drink it? In ancient times, wine drinkers weren’t really interested in discussing the nuances of what they were drinking; wine rather played a function and a role in society. The effect of intoxication was considered a gift from the heavens and the careful, advanced chemistry now associated with winemaking was not defined until modern day.
Over time, as contemporary wines have emerged and the global world of wine has shrunk into a village; the art of winemaking continues to seek perfection. Standards amongst consumers have developed alongside palates. From Plato, to Cyrus Redding, to today’s Robert Parker, the age of the wine critic has made its appearance. Wine production has become an art consistently challenged by the critic and consumer.
Consumers and winemakers are becoming more conscious of what they are drinking and producing, and as a result, one could say winemaking is experiencing a trend of retreat and simplification. While it’s not the fast track back to cough syrup, there exists a yearning to go back to the roots and basic foundations of winemaking.
Nowadays, “minimal intervention” is a term popping up all over the wine scene. It’s meaning can be broad or it can be specific. Minimal intervention is the belief that as little as possible should be done to the wine throughout its production. When a producer uses the term, they are trying to convey that they did what they could to avoid “interfering” with the natural process of winemaking, leaving as much as possible to mother nature. From the vineyard to the cellar, minimal intervention and its associated techniques can be broken down into parts.
Bush vines are a South African treasure and the most sought-after vine in the Cape right now. Bush vines are essentially untouched vines that have been left to their own devices. They grow on dry, un-irrigated land and produce low-yields with small berries. These berries produce unique, intensely flavoured wines.
Want to taste some old vine wine? Try the Flotsam and Jetsam Cinsault by Chris and Suzaan Alheit of Alheit Vineyards. This wine is made from farmed bush vine parcels from Darling and Stellenbosch. Fresh, fruity and a great ‘any occasion’ wine – from your smartest of dinner parties to a solo night in.
The absence of pesticides or fungicides in the vineyard is also considered to be a sustainable, organic and minimal intervention technique. While studies have shown that chemical residues in wine are too small to have any effect on drinkers, it is the vineyard workers that are being exposed to hefty health risks. Ginny Poval’s Arboretum and Big Flower range is produced from organic, high density vineyards. Purchase your bottle here.
Hand pruning, hand-picking and hand-sorting are techniques that treat the vines delicately versus a heavy machine doing the work and potentially causing damage to the grapes and vines.
Natural Fermentation aka wild ferment or spontaneous fermentation takes place without the assistance of commercial yeasts. Natural yeasts and microorganisms are brought in by the grapes from the vineyard and are encouraged to propagate by temperature control.
Fining is a process where winemakers add fining agents to their wine in order to remove small solids and improve the clarity of the finished wine. Unfined wines, simply put, are wines that have not gone through this process. They will generally appear hazier than traditional wines and may have some sediment at the bottom of the bottle, they may also be labelled as a ‘natural wine’. Unfiltered, is wine that has not been filtered. After fermentation, wine is usually filtered through a specialty filter. This process removes solids or small particles from the wine. These particles are a normal result of the fermentation process and are not harmful. Filtering of wine leaves a wine that is more aesthetically pleasing and considered a cosmetic process. Many experts believe that wines that are unfined or unfiltered will have a sweeter and earthier flavour. Why don’t you decide for yourself and try wines from David Trafford’s exciting project, Sjinn? Sjinn Vineyards do not fine their wine and minimal filtering is used (bentonite). The whole range is spectacular, but my personal favourite is their Malgas White Blend (75% Chenin Blanc, 17% Viognier and 8% Roussanne).
The winemaking process is a journey with many roads. Ultimately, the style decided by the winemaker will depend on numerous factors such as: grape variety, climate and available resources. As wine consumers, it’s beneficial to understand certain wine terminology so more informed, conscious purchasing decisions can be made with confidence.
Cheers for now,