Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Clark Smith (postmodern winemaking): It is all Emile Peynaud's fault

Both Isabelle Legeron (Natural Wine) and Clark Smith (postmodern winemaking) are of a mind that technological advances in the post-WWII period changed the nature of winemaking and wine. As a result, today's product does not compare favorably with the wines of yore. Their solution to this jointly perceived problem differs markedly though, with each casting a jaded eye at the other's selection (natural wine for Ms. Legeron and postmodern winemaking for Smith). Ms. Legeron refers to some of the tools in Smith's postmodern toolkit as "intervention technologies" while Smith titled a chapter in his book "Natural Wine Nonsense." In this post I will explore what Smith sees as the problem with modern wines and the path that has taken us to this special place.

I have previously related how the restriction of access to oxygen resulted in the creation of crisp white wines in Germany, an approach that was quickly adopted in Bordeaux. Smith sees this as the beginning of the end for red wines of pre-war profundity as Emile Peynaud, the famed French enologist, declared oxygen the enemy of wine and, in so doing, launched the age of solution chemistry and scientific enology.

At this time I will take a brief detour to highlight the solution model of wine as described by Smith. According to Smith, scientific enology starts with the idea that wine is a chemical solution. If wine was in fact a solution, it would have the properties/capabilities detailed in the figure below.

In this model, wine flavor is the sum of its parts and managing those parts allows control of the whole. Smith sees both the model elements and the approach as being "injurious to wine quality" and identifies a number of instances in the past which hinted at the model's shortcomings:
  • The limited solubility of anthocyanin, as shown in the 1970s work of Riberau-Gayon
  • His (Smith's) ultra-filtration work which shows anthocyanin (molecular weight of 300) unable to pass through a filter with porosity of 100,000
  • As indicated in the figure above, aromatic intensity should correlate to in-solution concentration but micro-oxygenation of Merlot will reduce the bell pepper aromas without a reduction of its pyrazine content.
The path to today's modern winemaking is illustrated below along with the dominant pedagogy. According to Smith, "modern day winemaking has been useful in eliminating gross defects but has done little to promote excellence."

I would like to push back gently against Mr. Smith's assertion that (i) wines were probably better in the past and (ii) that we lost our ability to produce wines of that type due to the post-war technology advances and winemaking changes.  The implication contained therein is that the wines of yore were "better" than the wines of today. Hence the need for a postmodern-style of winemaking.

First I would take a look at the market and US wine consumption from 1950 to 2010. In the figure below, we see an almost unrelenting increase in wine consumption in the US; even with all that bad wine sloshing about. The data show a 460% increase in total wine consumption and a 1700% percent increase in table wine consumption. In 1950, table wine consumption was 25% of total wine consumed but by 2010 it had grown to 82% of total wine consumed. Folks generally consume sweet wines to cover up faults but this dramatic migration to table wine consumption would seem to indicate improving satisfaction with the quality of the product being presented to the market. Not shown in the figure is the fact that per capita consumption has increased from 0.93 gallons to 2.93 gallons over the same period, an increase of 172%.


As it relates to how good wine was in the past, I direct the readers' attention to the post I wrote refuting Ms. Legeron's similar claim wherein I draw on Paul Lukacs (Inventing Wine) scholarship to lay out the conditions that prevailed pre- and post-war and the role of science (and Emile Peynaud) in bringing winemaking under control. I also direct the reader to a more recent post on the development of the Piemontese wine industry (Simone Cinolto, Soft Soil, Black Grapes) to gain a perspective of traditional winemaking conditions and the risk posed for the wines produced in those environments.

The next time I revist this topic I will look in greater detail at Clark's solution (postmodern winemaking) for getting us out of the rut that we are in.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

No comments:

Post a Comment