Science or Art?

Here’s a topic for debate. In Colin’s latest issue of the University of Auckland Alumni magazine, ‘Ingenio’, there’s an article about research into New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. Six million dollars is being spent on “a project to find out what makes New Zealand sauvignon blanc so distinctive on the global market”. In what could reasonably be described as hyperbole, the article predicts that soon, winemakers may be able to “dial a sauvignon” so every sauvignon produced for the world market can be more-or-less the same.

Is this what we want? Is this what winemaking has come down to, scientists analysing wine compounds so they can, as project leader Professor Richard Gardner (Biological Sciences) says, “control them”?

I’m not questioning the need to consistently strive for the best wine in the world, but there is much debate about how we achieve this. I personally adhere to the view – held by top winemakers – that the best wine is made in the vineyard. On the other hand, these scientists are using government money to prove that yeast is one of the most important keys to producing a good wine, ergo good winemaking starts after harvest.

The team’s research has taken them to Kumeu River Wines, owned and run by the wonderful Michael Brajkovich MW, and his siblings Milan, Paul, and Marijana, to look at the use of natural yeasts as opposed to commercial yeasts. (The Coddington Chardonnay produced by Kumeu River comes from my brother’s vineyard near Huapai, Auckland, and in 1994 I helped Tim and Angela Coddington plant these vines). At Kumeu River the researchers have discovered – surprise, surprise – “numerous different yeasts growing naturally on the grapes and vines”. Tell us something we don’t know.

I’m not sure about this direction in winemaking. Sure, the science of winemaking is indisputable, but the art of winemaking is often – and foolishly – overlooked. I think of the analogy of baking, something very dear to my heart. I could get scientists to analyse to the extent of paralysis the ingredients of a good cake – lightness, moistness, flavour – but in the end good cooking comes down to what’s going on inside the cook. If you make food for people with love in your heart, the food will turn out to be magnificent. If you don’t believe me, read “Like Water For Chocolate” and weep at the wedding scene.

I know I’m prejudiced and sexist, but I favour female winemakers, or at least those male winemakers who are in touch with their feminine side. Jane Cooper, our winemaker, knows all the science of winemaking inside out and back to front, but she’s more impressive, in my opinion, when she just leads from the heart (and the nose). Just like I was impressed, about a decade ago, when I first met Claire Allan of Huia in Marlborough, who used to make unbelieveably good Gewurztraminer (haven’t had any for a while).

And another thing – just because the world loves New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc right now, does that guarantee a future for our particular style? Isn’t it presumptuous to assume that the international taste for wines will never change? We only have to look at how the New Zealand palate has developed – from sweet wines and sherry to the sophistication of today.

I will watch this “Dial a sauvignon” project with interest.


One thought on “Science or Art?

  1. Nothing is going to replace good viticulture nor good winemakers with a strong creative streak. But enology helps us understand what makes a great wine great – not produce assembly-line wines that are all the same. To the contrary, on the horizon we’re seeing a young generation of wine drinkers who want greater variety. Understanding how yeast contributes to the process doesn’t mean winemaking starts after harvest, it is just filling in what up until now has been a big gap in our knowledge. –Brian Clark, editor, Voice of the Vine,

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