Meg Houston Maker at her website Terroir Review has an interesting proposal for how to classify wines, one that I think is in the right direction but has a serious flaw. She argues:
If we think of wine as principally an agricultural product — grown somewhere, made somewhere, and, to use Matt Kramer’s term, expressing “somewhereness” — we must consider not only where the grapes are grown but also how they become transformed into wine. Process matters.
This is absolutely correct. The production process as much as the climate and geology of the vineyard determines what ends up in the bottle. This is crucial information for the consumer to know and is sometimes more useful than knowing the AVA in which the grapes were grown, which may have so much diversity as to be meaningless.
Using the French system of classifying cheese as a model she suggests 4 classifications based on the production process:
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.
I have no problem with these classifications but I think at least one more category is needed.
In my travels I come across some winemakers who source fruit locally from a single vineyard and emphasize the quality and distinctiveness of the fruit they use. These are small production, small lot operations that give every barrel the attention that artisanal winemakers give their lots. Yet they are not averse to using additives and processes that “modulate the wine’s properties”. With some lots they may use commercial yeast to help with a high alcohol fermentation, with others, enzymes to extract color to help modulate tannin development, or micro-oxidation to adjust mouthfeel, etc. With other lots they may not even use sulfur to protect the wine if they’re curious about what the results would be.
According to this classification they would be considered industrial wines because they go well beyond minimal cellar inputs. But these are utterly unlike industrial wines. Commercial exigencies play little role in their decisions. The cellar manipulations are used not to save money but to produce a wine according to their vision. Mad experimenters striving to produce distinctive wines, every vintage is an opportunity to push the envelope to make a more interesting wine than in previous vintages. They often hold wines back from release for several years until the wine shows sufficient development, a practice that is anything but financially beneficial. Rather than destroying terroir by striving for homogeneity and consistency, they’re seeking to discover the full range of expression of which the vineyard is capable.
I’m not sure what to call such wines. “Art Wines” comes to mind but I think even Farmstead and Artisanal wines can be works of art so that won’t do. I think I would just classify them as “Winemaker’s Wines” because their guiding star is the winemaker’s imagination.
I know this category works against the prevailing ideology that only minimal intervention wines are worthy. But I think what wine culture should be striving for is more differentiation, more distinction, more ways for wine to be. Sometimes that distinctiveness will be a product of the vineyard. Terroir is real and a crucial element of wine aesthetics. But sometimes distinctiveness will be product of the winemaker’s imagination. Why should we be forced to choose between them; why not both?
And we certainly don’t want a classification system that forces wine to be less than what it can be. That’s the problem with the old French model of strictly limiting what winemakers can do.
At any rate, I’m on board with a classification system that takes production process into consideration. But we should make room for the full range of processes that produce distinctive wines.