I’m a big fan of polarities. Just about all of life is lived in the tension between two poles: To name just one example, the tension created between inhaling and exhaling. Life is, quite literally, lived in the dance of tension created by these two activities. Probably zero people would say that inhaling is better than exhaling. Both are essential. The key is to not hang out only on one end of the polarity seesaw. That’s where imbalances come from.
This idea applies to the realm of wine, too. One of the strong currents running through the wine world is the hands-off versus hands-on polarity. Wine people call this vins de terroir (wines of place) versus vins d’effort (wines of effort).
Though this current may not be new, these days the schism between these two groups is widening quickly. On one side is a rapidly expanding group of people who believe the less we fiddle with a wine, the better that wine will be; this viewpoint finds its most ardent support in what has been dubbed the natural wine movement. On the other side is a group of winemakers who believe that if the wine needs to be fiddled with, well then, fiddle away.
On the hands-off side of the divide, technical gadgetry is viewed suspiciously and used sparingly – in emergency situations only. On the hands-on side, technology is viewed positively and used (sometimes) liberally.
The hands-off winemakers don’t even want to call themselves “winemakers.” They consider themselves merely winegrowers because well-tended grapes (almost) make themselves into good wine. The winegrower, they feel, should not leave fingerprints on her wine. She should get out of the way and let nature do what nature wants to do, which is to create vins de terroir. According to this group, Mother Nature has an intelligence of her own, and if we insert ourselves, we subvert it.
In contrast, the hands-on side happily and proudly accepts the moniker “winemaker.” The winemaker is part of the equation, they feel, much like Van Gogh is part of the equation of “The Starry Night.” Masterpieces don’t paint themselves, after all.
Are wines better when there are as few interventions as possible, or are they better when our modern technical knowledge is brought to bear? Should winemakers adopt a laissez-faire or a regulative posture towards winemaking? The answer to this (and to all questions about polarities, frankly) is yes and no and it depends. This complex response is the only satisfying answer because the question itself begs so many more questions. For example, how hands-off can a winegrower be? Is the equation for great wine merely grapes plus yeast plus time equals wine? What about the French concept of elevage, or the rearing of the wine? Once the winemaker crushes the grapes and has the “young” juice, what is the best vessel to raise it in? Oak? Stainless steel? Concrete tanks? Like children, do wines need to be properly raised? I’ve seen kids whose parents take a very hands-off approach, and it ain’t pretty. Kids don’t raise themselves. Does wine?
On the other side, is there a limit that, once exceeded, renders the finished product unrecognizable as authentic wine? For example, some wineries use coloring agents (e.g. Mega Purple grape juice concentrate) to enhance their wine’s optic appeal to consumers. If most people like their wine inky and purple, by golly, let’s give ’em what they’re looking for! Are these winemakers poking their sticky little fingers into the grapes too much? If these winemakers were likened to parents, they would be overbearing, and we all know what overbearing parents can be like – and how their kids turn out.
Questions don’t satisfy when what we really want is to gorge ourselves on answers. Yet questions are like tapas. They tease our appetites forward, and they add up. What they add up to is exactly what I – and I suspect many of us – are looking for: a more diverse and full-spectrum experience.
An excellent way to broaden your own wine-drinking experience is to seek out both sides of the polarity. Grab a few wines that express the best of the hands-off and the hands-on styles. Drink them side by side and over a day or two. See what you notice and what you like, and why.
Here are a few suggestions to get you started.
On the hands-off side of the street:
Both of these producers are explicit about wanting to disappear as much as possible from the finished wine. They believe that the winemaker can – and should – get out of the equation so that the wine drinker is getting a direct snapshot of that grape in that place.
• Day Wines, Vin de Days Blanc, White Blend: Brianne Day crafts minimal intervention wines. Her vineyard sites are all certified biodynamic, which requires the maximum amount of organic certification. They’re all native ferments, too, which means the she adds no lab-cultivated yeast strains, and the wines are minimally sulfured at the time of bottling. The wine is clean and refreshing. To me, it tastes like spring, like drinking a glass of flowers and beautiful orchard fruits.
• Nicolas Chemarin, Regnie, Beaujolais: This wine is also minimally fiddled with. It’s aged in a combination of concrete tanks and used oak barrels (that don’t impart any oaky flavor). It tastes like fresh strawberry juice plus cracked black pepper. A beautiful, refreshing, light and very tasty red.
And for hands-on:
• Sean Thackrey, Old Vine Red Blend, Pleiades XXIV: According to the conventional “rules” of winemaking, people don’t typically blend these varietals together, which makes this wine a fairly irreverent blend. Thackrey is trying to show that through the expert winemaker’s touch, an unconventional blend can become something beautiful. Philosophically, I like that idea. Also, this wine is just plain delicious. It’s got a real strawberry preserves and orange marmalade quality. Super velvety, sleek and versatile.
• Pierre Gimonnet et Fils, Cuis Premier Cru, Champagne: No other kind of winemaking requires as much of a winemaker’s presence and hard work as Champagne. You could call it Extreme Hands-on. This Champagne is made from all Chardonnay grapes, which gives it a very linear quality, but because of how long it stays on the lees (decomposing yeast cells, which add flavor) before bottling, it is also generous – full of lemons and yeasty aromatics.
Bryan Flewelling is the wine director for Big Tree Hospitality, which owns three restaurants in Portland: Hugo’s, Eventide Oyster Co. and The Honey Paw.