For many of us, the art of winemaking conjures thoughts of nature, age-old recipes and processes steeped heavily in tradition and history, in addition to, of course, good grapes – the foundation of all good wines. The reality however, especially in the past few decades, is that without technology, a winemaker is rarely able to transform those good grapes into truly spectacular wine.
Just 70 years ago, the wine industry looked very different than the industry of today. California was known for jug wine, Australia and South Africa were only known for making strong fortified wines and Canada’s wine industry barely existed. While New World countries struggled to find their way, France remained the undisputed world wine power, both in terms of production and quality. But while France enjoyed its dominance, a technological revolution was quietly underway in the post World War II era.
During this period, countries such as Australia, Chile, New Zealand and the United States, which was on the forefront of the technological revolution, were busy becoming powerful wine nations of their own. Their lack of history was actually beneficial as it made them more willing to adopt modern winemaking and vineyard practices. The real forces in the development of the modern wine industry were California and Australia. Both benefited from the young, eager and talented winemakers graduating from the top winemaking schools at University of California at Davis and Roseworthy College in Australia – they brought new ideas and sensibilities, as well as the latest techniques and processes to their growing industries.
With a better understanding of winemaking and the science behind grape growing, vintners in California, Australia and throughout the New World began employing new trellising systems, canopy management techniques and green harvesting practices to ensure grapes achieved full ripeness. Ripe grapes translate into wines full of character, while unripe grapes produce a leafy, green character that is now associated with inferior winemaking. Ripeness also affects tannins. An Australian Shiraz, for example, is known for its juicy, soft character – this wine has tannins but they feel round and approachable, which is a shift from the firm character of many red wines from the past.
If you’ve been drinking wine for awhile, you may have noticed that alcohol percentages have risen dramatically. Higher alcohol generally means the grapes have ripened more on the vine and so have more natural fermentable sugars. It also means the phenolics (aromatic qualities of the grape) are further developed. In the past, a Cabernet would more often have notes of herbs and vegetables, but over the last few decades it is increasingly associated with riper blackberry fruit character.
New World winemakers also began employing new technologies and techniques once grapes left the vineyard. Techniques such as micro-oxygenation and reverse osmosis have been welcomed for making wines taste riper and softer and vilified for stripping wine of its regional character. Reverse osmosis may just be the most controversial as it allows the winemaker to artificially remove unwanted character from the wine. The debate over the merits of such techniques will undoubtedly continue over the next few decades.
Once you add in the wide-scale availability of refrigeration, stainless steel fermenters and aging tanks, new filtration systems and equipment, and computers, it’s clear to see the endless number of improvements available to modern winemakers today.
California and Australia hit their heights in the 1980’s and 1990’s, and a great number of New World wine regions are now benefiting from the stewardship these two technological leaders provided. Wineries from Argentina to New Zealand are now employing modern techniques to dazzle wine drinkers’ palates with their wine styles.
And what of world industry leader France’s reaction to these technological changes and new ways of thinking? After a period of skepticism and a “wait and see” attitude, the French wine industry is now undergoing its own resurgence as modern technologies are being employed throughout the industry. The return of the “Old World” wines powered by new technologies and techniques will provide a welcome challenge to the entire industry and all our palates will be the beneficiaries of better wine made around the world.