A New Classification System for Wine?

vineyardIn the U.S. we have no wine classification system that is really informative. Our appellation rules ensure the origin of the grapes to a degree but because there are few restrictive production rules, knowing the origin of the grapes tells you little about the wine in the bottle unless you know the producer. It would be helpful if there was some labeling that indicated something about the production process in addition to the origin. This is especially needed because terms that appear on labels such as “natural”, “artisanal”, “craft” or “handmade” are systematically abused and mean nothing.

Wine writer Meg Houston Maker has an interesting proposal based on the classification of French cheese.

The vineyard and field and cellar are elements Wineof terroir, but so, too, is the maker’s mind. This suggests that our new lexicon cannot be merely about locality, it must also be about intentionality, about how those local raw ingredients get made into food.

I absolutely agree. Here is her proposal for a new classification lexicon to supplement our current appellation indicators:

Farmstead — The wine is made on the winemaker’s own property using fruit grown on that land. No purchased fruit is allowed. The winemaker uses minimal inputs and interventions in the cellar and omits all additives that modulate the wine’s properties. Production is limited to the size of the estate and production facility.

Artisanal — The wine is likewise made on the winemaker’s property but using locally sourced fruit, possibly mixed with fruit grown on the property itself. Again, the winemaker uses minimal inputs and interventions in the cellar, omitting additives. Production is limited by the size and capacity of the production facility.

Cooperative — The wine is made using fruit pooled from a group of winegrowers, in a facility owned by one of them or by the collective. The grower-makers have stylistic as well as commercial sympathies. Production is limited by the size of the collective, the yield of each grower, and the capacity of the shared production facility.

Industrial — The wine is made using fruit grown anywhere allowed by appellation laws. Winemaking is industrial, and there are no restrictions on cellar manipulations beyond the legal requirements for wine production. Production is principally limited by commercial exigencies rather than raw material availability or capacity.

The one problem I see with these categories is that I run into small producers rather often who experiment with additives, enzymes, various oak products, or micro-oxidation, etc. Their wines are not industrial. They are made by hand using local grapes, and each barrel gets the kind of attention typical of artisanal wines. But they are more welcoming toward products that are technologically innovative and probably wouldn’t qualify as “minimal inputs”. It isn’t obvious to me how “minimal inputs” could be defined precisely without enormous controversy. Are cultured yeasts allowed? What about stabilizers, oak chips, or acidification?

I think we need an additional category–perhaps “post-artisanal” would accurately describe it since such producers clearly have a foot in artisanal wine making while aspiring to move beyond those limitations.

Unfortunately, the chances of this happening via industry wide regulations are slim because it means industrial producers would have to stop lying about their product.

Yes, huge brands will bridle at having their wine referred to as “industrial,” but that term, at least, is an accurate reflection of the origins and process by which that wine was made. Valorizing farmstead and artisanal production is a way to honor both place and people, and to help secure the future of terroir-driven American wine.

They will do more than “bridle”. They will flatly oppose it and with their political influence would likely prevail.

2 comments

  1. I love this concept Dwight. But would suggest that since many of the most highly regarded wines of the world (from Tete de Cuvee Champagne to Vintage Port–frankly, anything except Grand Cru Burgundy) would fall into lesser categories based on this system, I propose the following, tongue firmly planted in cheek:

    BM Wines: wines made according to the standard practices of the ancient world, before Medieval monks. All additives allowed as long as they are purely natural and available by foraging. No use of modern technology of any kind. A temple to the sponsoring deity must be erected on the crush pad, and offerings made. The BM may also stand for bathing monthly.

    MM Wines: Wines made according to the practices of Medieval Monks. Extensive recording keeping is required, but only on parchment using quill pens. No winery staff may wear any synthetic material, use electricity, or listen to recorded music. Winery must provide health insurance to all staff, but medical care is limited to herbs and prayer. All wines shipped in barrel, amphorae, or goatskins.

    BC Wines: Wines in this category may be shipping in glass bottles sealed with a cork. However, producers must sign an affidavit that declares complete ignorance of chemistry, biology, or the scientific method. The use of hydrometers, thermometers, and refractometers is expressly forbidden. Perfume is preferred over the use of and cleaning agent. Bathing is optional.

    LP Wines: These wines may use knowledge based on the studies completed by Louis Pasteur. Such wines may include standard practices of hygiene and science. However, the use of electricity and any synthetic material is strongly discouraged. Stainless steel? Don’t even think about it.

    Wine2K: made with the standard technology available today. Any winemaker hoping to use this classification must pass a basic exam on organic chemistry and bacteriology. The primary criteria for judging these wines will be sensory analysis by the consuming market. Production will be limited to the amount the market will buy.

    Any winemaker choosing to create a modern wine based on the categories above must submit a doctoral thesis to a panel of experts in support of the wine and defend it successfully. That panel must include Rudolf Steiner, Marie Curie, The Pope (Benedict, not that upstart Frances) and The Devil Himself.

    Paul Wagner, BA, BA, BBB, BFD, WTF…

    1. Bravo Paul. I appreciate this in so many ways. If I knew who you were, lived close by, and was not in isolation, I would invite you for a glass of MM wine, from the barrel of course.

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