How to make wine the good old-fashioned way?


Now that I am to produce those grapes and try to make my own wine, the question is: which techniques to use? There is plenty of talk about how wine should be made. There are also very different opinions about the use of chemicals or organic production.

Which one should I choose? This question is not easy to answer. First, I will start with what I really want. That part is easy, I want good old-fashioned wine.

Wine Middle Ages
Wine making scenes (Normandy, 12th century – Den Haag, Königliche Bibliothek)

Nowadays, wine production is quite different from when I was a kid. Large wineries look more like chemical factories than the wineries of my childhood. It seems to be all about additives that will ensure a constant quality. I have no problem with the goal of having a predictable result every time. It is just that I would like wine to be wine, you know fermented crushed grapes. When I take a look at production protocols of industrial wineries, I feel more like being back in organic chemistry classes, with all those lovely ancient Greek-sounding product names that the average person would be totally unable to define. And the little chemist’s kit is not only with wine factories. It is just the same with DIY wine kits and in books about the DIY wines. Add a bit of this and a bit of that, shake and stir, add some more of the magical powder and so on and so on. Eventually the miracle will happen thanks to chemistry and you will have something that you must believe is wine. I have had the “pleasure” to try the results from some of those wine kit aficionados. Yuk. Let’s face it, if wine was that simple to make, everybody would be a winemaker. If you like red dye, I suppose, that might be the way to go. Not for me. Thank you very much.

I was born in France and, there, wine is part of the culture. It is much more than about the drink. Yet, the drink had better taste good, because not knowing your wine and serving crap will not enhance one’s social life over there.

So, I’d rather not have all the chemicals along the way and possibly in my glass. Is organic the way to go, then? On paper, it sounds good but what does it really mean? I have a really hard time to find out. The previous owner explained me that his way was all natural and organic with no chemicals. Yet, he left me some of the chemicals he used to use to protect the grapevines. After some research and to my surprise, that fungicide, from a major chemical company, is approved for organic production. I would never have thought it could be the case. The person who planted the grapevines before him tells me that he did it natural and organic but that the owner from whom I bought the property did not. Try to understand something from that! And I have similar discussions times and times over. I have come to a great conclusion: just like with driving, only “I” (the generic I, not I Christophe) knows how to do it right. “I” am the only one who makes natural wines, the others just fool around. It is a cute story, but it does not help me to find out what the right way of making wine is. So I am a bit stuck with my concept of old-fashioned. What does it mean really?

To me, old-fashioned is about when vintners where producing their grapes the best way they could to make good wine. They used chemicals. In particular, copper sulfate is the main ingredient of the so-called Bordeaux mixture, which is one of the oldest crop protection methods for grapevines. It does a great job on mildew prevention. In the old days, many vintners also got health problems because of the repetitive use of the Bordeaux mixture. So much for the romantic view on old-fashioned grape production. I have seen my grandparents using sulfur to disinfect wood barrels and equipment. Boy! That was quite something when they lit the sulfur stick on fire and all that smoke came out. Sulfur certainly did the trick to kill germs, but those fumes were not something to get into your lungs, either. So, old-fashioned was not about no chemicals. And the reality is that to prevent diseases and kill germs in the process of producing grapes and making wine, it is necessary to use some seriously potent products.

I want the grapevines that I grow to be healthy and vigorous. I want to avoid any germs that would turn my wine into something undrinkable. Unless somebody knows a non-chemical method to do that, I think I will not have a choice but to use sulfur and its derivates. I think that making good wine, is more about using the least amount of chemicals possible and use them in the proper quantities at the right times during the whole growth.

Chemicals to fight diseases and germs are not everything, though. There is the issue of additives, too. There criticism about modern techniques using additives and yeast after thoroughly cleaning the grapes versus not cleaning and use the natural yeast present on the grapes. In the “good old times”, I can remember that vintners would add some sugar if the natural sugar content was too low, in order to get a higher percentage of alcohol. Although, the addition of sugar was –and still is- quite strictly regulated in France, the practice was not uncommon. Actually, some vintners were sometimes busted with large numbers of bags of sugar on their farms or in their trucks. After all, producing grapes is subject to natural conditions and sometimes Nature would work adversely. Adding a little something to compensate for adverse climatic conditions to produce a better quality is not really shocking, is it, as long as it remains within reasonable limits? If the fermentation process is a bit weak, is it a bad thing to add a bit of Saccharomyces Cerevisiae, which is the natural yeast that has been used by winemakers, bakers and brewers for ages? I think not, as long as it is –once again- done reasonably.

Reason is, in my opinion, the magic word. More than trying to be idealistic beyond what is realistic considering all the variables or more than trying to look for convenience and not wanting to take the chance to fail, I believe in a reasoned production method. I think that I am willing to be pragmatic and use help when it is needed. What would be the point of ending up wasting it all? Next to pragmatism, I am also quite committed to use chemicals and additives only to a minimum and place observation and decision skills first. I want this experience to be about building craftsmanship, not about the path of least resistance.

I will welcome any useful comments and suggestions from you to help me produce as naturally as possible and with as little additives and chemicals as possible.


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