Dirty, low-tech secrets of modern wine

Science eliminated wild yeasts and oxygen - now young experts are putti ng them back, says Patrick Matthews

Modern winemaking has become a highly technological discipline in place of the traditional alchemy. Its heroes are bright young men, widely praised for banishing faults such as vinegary or rotten egg tastes and a lack of freshness caused by expos ure to oxygen.

The techniques that have cleaned up the making of wine are no secret. They include fermenting with single-strain cultured yeasts rather than wild strains, and preventing spoilage by chilling grapes and grape juice and using anti-oxidant additives.

Yet the latest trend among the young winemakers of California and South Australia is to question these squeaky-clean practices. They are using their training not to relegate old, low-tech practices to history, but to understand why they are often surprisingly successful.

Richard Gibson is group technical manager for the giant Australian Southcorp group, and much of his attention is given to re-evaluating practices which until recently were taboo.

"A big part of my job is looking at the techniques which are used traditionally to make great wine," he says. "It's trying to understand the basic scientific principles."

The key to making great wine, according to one school of thought in California, is to "dirty up" winemaking. This means permitting some oxidisation of the grape juice, followed by natural fermentation. Wild yeasts are used to ferment all the greatest French wines, from Chateau Petrus in Bordeaux to Romanee-Conti in Burgundy. Until recently they have been supplanted in the New World by strains of the sort developed originally by brewers and bakers.

But Southcorp - which makes Penfolds Grange, Australia's most celebrated red wine - is now experimenting with wild yeasts. So is Charlie Melton in the Barossa Valley and so too are leading Californian producers. Southcorp is looking at the effect of blending small quantities of naturally fermented wine with its regular production. One fear in the past has been of inadvertently introducing off-flavours such as acetic acid or the notoriously unpleasant hydrogen sulphide. But Mr Gibson thinks that in certain wines, and in tiny quantities, even anathematised substances may have a place.

"The Australian wine industry has gone to great lengths to ensure that its wines are free from hydrogen sulphide," he says. "It's a basic wine-making fault which shouldn't be present in detectable quantities. But it can be a powerful factor in contributing to complexity."

Complexity of flavours is the goal of many winemakers reacting against a world oversupplied from the same grape varieties - Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. "It's simply become boring," says Peter Vinding-Diers, the Danish-born and Australian-trained winemaker who helped to revolutionise the making of white Bordeaux. "You're seeing identical wines turned out all over the world."

Mr Vinding-Diers believes that local yeast strains, which mutate naturally to create a spectrum of difference, can contribute as much to a wine's uniqueness as variations in soil or climate. He carried out experiments in fermenting identical batches of juice with the naturally occurring yeasts found in different Bordeaux chateaux. Ten years after the wine was made, he says, students for the Master of Wine qualification have no difficulty in distinguishing them.

This is in line with analyses carried out at Oregon State University and by the Institut Co-operatif du Vin in the Rhone valley. These found quite dissimilar components in identical batches of juice fermented with different yeasts. However the debate is not over. Professor Ann Noble of the University of California has carried out "sensory difference tests" and concluded that yeast-derived flavour differences are relatively unimportant and fade with time.

The effect of oxygen is better understood. Many think of it simply as a potential cause of faulty wine. In a hi-tech winery, the war against oxidation begins even before the grapes are picked, with a treatment of ascorbic acid (vitamin C) or sulphur dioxide, continues with chilling of the juice, and ends with a final bubbling of nitrogen through the wine to drive out any trace of air before bottling.

But the world's greatest dry white wines in Burgundy have been produced for centuries in circumstances which make it inevitable that the juice will oxidise a little. The most fashionable Californian wineries have begun to imitate them.

The newer wine-making countries pride themselves on their open-mindedness. Without such an attitude there would be no great Australian wines; their history dates back to soon after the war when Max Schubert, the chief of Penfolds, toured the leading Bordeaux chateaux and returned having learnt about oak ageing and the value of oxidising red wines following fermentation.

Until now such receptiveness to others' traditions has foundered on the Anglo-Saxon cult of hygiene. It is difficult to picture Australians stripping off - as many Burgundians do - and plunging up to their necks in fermenting wine, even though technologyhas yet to devise as effective a way of macerating the grape skins in the juices.

But there is a new mood abroad. Australians in France enjoy moaning about the local willingness to use a proportion of grapes which damp weather has made mouldy with so-called grey rot. Yet on a recent visit to Champagne, Tony Jordon, head of Moet & Chandon's Australian operation at Green Point, was not fazed. "Maybe it's giving a bit of complexity," he said, adding, only half-joking: "Perhaps we should try and introduce some in Australia."

ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Ray Whelan was arrested earlier this week
Arts and Entertainment
In a minor key: Keira Knightley in the lightweight 'Begin Again'
Arts and Entertainment
Celebrated children’s author Allan Ahlberg, best known for Each Peach Pear Plum
peopleIndian actress known as the 'Grand Old Lady of Bollywood' was 102
Wayne’s estate faces a claim for alleged copyright breaches
peopleJohn Wayne's heirs duke it out with university over use of the late film star's nickname
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Business Systems Analyst (Retail)

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Up to 20% bonus: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: An...

Head of Digital Marketing,London

To £58k Contract 12 months: Charter Selection: Major household name charity se...

Lead Hand - QC

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Lead Hand - QCProgressive are recruiting...

Technical Manager / Lead - Mechanical.

£43000 - £45000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: A leading Br...

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice