Art and Science in Winemaking

©Copyright Ben Rotter 2004-2008

Art and science are commonly misunderstood as enemies of each other in the wine world. This is an unfortunate interpretation since winemaking is both an art and a science.

A more helpful standpoint is that science gives us the knowledge to understand the processes involved in winemaking and the factors affecting wine quality. Understanding the science helps winemakers to use practises which lead to better wine quality and the elimination of wine faults. One example of this can be seen in managing acetic acid bacteria. If the conditions in which acetic acid bacteria thrive are known, they can be attenuated to reduce the impact of the bacteria, thus reducing acesence and elevating wine quality.

Scientific knowledge may be used as a tool to assist in obtaining desired artistic goals. The management of diacetyl (that "buttery" quality seen in many MLFed Chardonnays) during malolactic fermentation is a perfect example. In understanding the conditions which cause and preserve diacetyl in a wine, winemakers can either choose to retain this character or to reduce it.

Scientific wine analysis methods provide valuable tools for understanding a wine's deficiencies and surfeits. The analysis of pH, for example, is important due to its direct influence on wine colour and biological stability, and indirectly on taste and ageability. Used wisely, such information can help prevent potential problems and thus elevate wine quality significantly.

Ultimately, scientific knowledge allows a winemaker to have better control over the winemaking process. This also applies in the case of non-interventionist approaches. In such cases winemakers wish to reduce their influence on the winemaking to the minimum possible. They key word is "influence" here, which is different to "control". A winemaker can remain in control, whilst simultaneously minimising influence. In fact, having that control allows the winemaker to exercise minimal influence since they understand how to avoid problems that might arise in a fashion which influences the wine in the smallest possible way.

Winemakers who are not aware of the mechanics of processes occurring in wine are at a disadvantage because they possess less control over the winemaking process. Knowing where potential faults lie and how to correct them, how to obtain specific stylistic goals, and how to produce quality wine consistently given certain changes in environmental factors, cannot successfully be accomplished without some understanding of the theory behind them. Such an understanding need not be complicated, provided it is complete enough to serve its purpose.

The same argument applies to viticulture (or fruit growing in general), where site selection and vine training are based on scientific knowledge to obtain the best quality fruit possible. Examples include (but are in no way limited to) vine canopy management techniques (e.g. vine training to obtain lower fruit yield) and the improvement of soil drainage. A classic example of how canopy management techniques can be used to influence wine style is seen in the recent trend in New Zealand to get more or less tropical flavours out of Sauvignon Blanc. Allowing for different flavour profiles within the grapes gives winemakers control to create more varying wine styles (for example, blending tropical and herbaceous/vegetal characters to create a wine with a more interesting aromatic profile). Additionally, awareness of fruit maturation development can affect eventual wine style and quality significantly. The recent trend in making red grape wines with a silky smooth mouthfeel is largely due to the high degree of phenolic ripeness in the grapes used to make these wines. This characteristic would not have been reproducibly possible without an understanding of how the grape ripens and the ability to assess grape maturity analytically.

Wine tasting is another area where an understanding of the science behind winemaking and the physiological aspects of tasting can help produce better wine. After all, wine taste is the ultimate judge of wine quality. Various taste components in wine affect wine balance: as a simple example, sweetening a wine causes it to appear less acidic. Such knowledge assists the winemaker in making prudent decisions towards obtaining a superior balanced wine. In this very simple example, an excessively acidic wine can be sweetened to soften its acidic taste, resulting in a more drinkable wine. A more in depth understanding of how various wine characteristics (sweetness, acidity, body, aromatic and flavour profiles, tannic impressions, alcohol content) impact each other facilitates precise and efficient wine blending immensely.

The above examples illustrate how wine science can assist winemakers in improving wine quality, increasing control of processes and (potentially minimising) human influence, and enhancing the understanding of wine taste. Art and science should be seen as separate and compatible partners in the wine world, rather than contradictory forces.