Wineries frequently advertise minimalist winemaking, gentle handling, little to no intervention, and a hands off approach as methods for producing wines of terroir. This assumes that little to no intervention is 1) practiced, and 2) valuable to driving what makes wines terrific. To some extent I completely agree, one of the definitions of great fruit is that there is little required in the cellar to transform it to great wine. But has the idea of “minimalistic” been framed in terms that are too black and white? It seems we have begun to couch the discussion in two camps: those who highly intervene making wines of effort and those who do very little – native ferments, “gentle” pump overs or punch downs, and other minimal handling of the grapes. The former is considered antithetical to producing a wine of terroir, and the latter the prescription for producing a wine of terroir.
Now I agree that less is more: fewer additions of water, acid, yeast, bacteria, tannins, enzymes, velcorin, etc. generally affords one the ideal opportunity to make a wine that most purely represents a particular site. I also prefer this form of winemaking philosophically. While it may be romantic, it seems to hearken back to a historical form of winemaking that makes me feel as though I am participating in something that has gone on for thousands of years. Dreamy or not, I like that idea. With that said, I also believe the concept of intervention needs to be revisited. The camp that advocates for little intervention may be misleading consumers into thinking not only that this is the most valuable form of winemaking, but also that winemaking itself requires little intervention. I think this is false, and the real issue is not intervention or no intervention, but how much intervention is applied and how intelligently it is administered.
We need to revisit two important, overarching facts about the history of winemaking in order to reposition the discussion on minimalism. First, wine has always been and will always be something that is cultivated. Cultivation is defined by a human being intervening with a plant’s original habitat and maximizing its production and potential. 5000 years ago people weren’t wandering through the countryside when they came upon a vineyard with vertical shoot position trellising and nicely manicured canopies. “Wow, let’s harvest this and do as little as possible to make great juice.” Second, we would do well to remember that the natural end product of crushed grapes is NOT wine, it is vinegar. Again, it takes intervention from a human being to prevent the process from continuing on to its inevitable end. I’d like to propose that we revisit the dialogue of wines of effort and wines of terroir. The idea that wines of terroir are produced only from minimal handling is a bit misleading. And some producers have begun to erroneously highlight how little they do in the cellar as if this is what creates a wine of terroir.
There are widely accepted “intervening” practices that many producers consider a part of normal non-interventionist winemaking. Think of all the vineyard practices that always seem to be excluded from the “minimal handling” discussion (leaf pulling, removing extra fruit, irrigation, shoot positioning). Is cooling your fermenter (a relatively recent practice in the history of winemaking) that different from adding yeast nutrients or sugar or acid to ferments? And what about the widely accepted – and totally intervening – practice of de-stemming the fruit? Do any of these make the wine less of a wine of terroir, or a person a less “gentle” winemaker?
While I’ve heard one producer suggest that his approach is one of “non-action,” even this does not frame the concept well enough for my taste. Why can’t we embrace the idea that we intervene in the process? Let’s get over it, the fact is that we intervene! But we don’t HAVE to fine everything with bentonite, or fish guts, or egg whites. We certainly don’t HAVE to remove alcohol, use 100% new oak, etc. So how do we define the limit of intervention? How do we know when it is truly unnecessary…or interventionist intervention?
I think we need to be asking ourselves, “why did I have to perform this action and can I change something upstream to prevent it in the future?” Perhaps we can suggest that those decisions that have the least impact on changing the nature of a wine’s taste are the least intervening. Good luck summarizing what those are into a neatly defined and marketable phrase! Long live intelligent intervention!