Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The role of a winemaker, the role of a chef

Herewith some rambling thoughts on the nature of creativity in winemaking. Expect revisions and updates as the writer's brain continues its churning. Please weigh in with your own thoughts and suggestions.

Winemakers must be a self-effacing lot. How many times do we hear winemakers say their job is to take perfect fruit and get out of the way, letting the grapes express their greatness in wine?
Chefs of course seek out the finest ingredients, but diners would be disappointed if chefs did the disappearing act that winemakers claim to aspire to.

In simply prepared, or familiar, dishes the quality of the ingredients may matter as much as the technique. But technique is what piques our interest, and why many of us are willing to pay big money to eat food. Even perfect ingredients cost much less than the plate prepared from them at a restaurant. We are paying for technique.

From Adria's Wikipedia page and used under a Creative Commons License. Thanks!
The current issue of Lucky Peach has a wonderful, thought-provoking article on Ferran Adria, a master of technique to say the least. Adria makes the point clearly: "I laugh now when people say 'No, the future is the product, the ingredients.' That is gibberish. What's important is the creative talent."
What is the creative talent in wine, and how can it be set free? Winemakers know that the self-effacing statement is a convenient fiction that marketers and, we hope, the public want to hear. The winemaker must make decisions that will greatly influence the finished wine, and there really is no true expression of the fruit, unless you consider that to be the shriveled or rotten end state of unpicked grapes.

Is deciding to pick at 25 degrees Brix (percent sugar in the grapes) rather than 22, or 27, a creative decision? Are the other routine decisions of how to handle the fruit and fermenting must, and how to age the wine creative, or stylistic decisions?

Adria says that the first person to make a mousse expanded the culinary language. What's an analogy in wine? Aside from the endless grape varieties wine can be made with, we have categories such as still, sparkling, fortified. Sometimes grapes are processed in some way before fermentation, e.g.,
Amarone, Ice Wine. Relatively new (or returned) to the wine world are the "orange" wines, white wines fermented and aged on the skins, often in oxidative conditions. We also have new techniques at hand, such as flash-detente, electrodialysis, and reverse osmosis with selective membranes to adjust the concentration of compounds such as tartaric acid, acetic acid, alcohol and ethylphenols. Are these techniques expanding the language of wine? Do they offer new creative outlets?

Do the ever-popular
Biodynamics(tm) rules for farming enhance the winemaker's creative options?

In truth, winemakers love to share ideas, and these discussions can lead to experimentation in the winery. Both the conversations and the experiments are a lot of fun. Is it creative to try a technique that another winemaker is already using? What is a creative breakthrough in wine, and where will the next come from?

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