A Different Approach to Non-Grape Winemaking: Why the "Style Design" approach?

©Copyright Ben Rotter 2003-2011

The non-grape winemaking world, hereon referred to as "fruit winemaking" (and including vegetables, flowers, etc) follows a "recipe" culture. Guidelines on usage and procedure are set by rough recipe outlines as a cook book might do. These recipes rarely go into detail and there are considerable problems with the common recipe approach.

Misguided recipe information

Recipes generally cover such information as quantities of fruit, sugar, and other additives (acids, tannin, enzymes, etc) to be used, and perhaps maceration techniques. Different fruit (of the same variety) from different areas and different years have different sugar, acid and tannin levels (let alone flavour intensity). Recipes which quote adding a particular amount of sugar or acid neglect this. Thus, if two different winemakers follow exactly the same recipe, but use different fruit, they will not end up with the same must. The two musts will have differing levels of sugar, acidity and fruit flavour concentration. A much better approach would be to quote final acidity, alcohol, and residual sugar levels (and perhaps even average/expected/past juice yields) in recipes so that winemakers might aim for these levels. Winemakers would then use different fruit, yet still obtain a must with the same levels of acid, alcohol and residual sugar, producing a more consistent and reproducible product.

Techniques in recipes

Winemaking practises are often outlined in recipes, yet these are rarely explained and vary considerably anyway. For example, the practise of either infusing flowers briefly with boiling/hot water, or infusing with cold water for an extended time is a significant difference in winemaking method. The first may be criticised because boiling/hot water may strip desirable aromas; the second because more `green' aromas may be extracted. This kind of reasoning is rarely given in recipes.

Recipe information detail

Recipes rarely give detailed information (given it's availability) covering such areas as varieties of fruit, fruit condition, fruit growing terroir, acid/residual sugar/pH/alcohol balance of the final wine, maceration/infusion techniques, yeast variety, fermentation temperature, final wine tasting notes, possible wine maturity development etc.
It is hoped that this approach will become more common, shared amongst fruit winemakers, and key differences in fruit quality and winemaking philosophy will become clear. This will inevitably lead to improved quality wine as bad practises are ruled out and an understanding of the mechanics and sources of bad quality are discovered.

Recipes as guidelines

Recipes are generally regarded as guidelines only. This is adequate, but tends to be limited to providing a brief description of the quantity of fruit/s used, limited maceration details and a racking schedule used to make a wine provide little information about the final product. Provision of more detailed information concerning fruit winemaking knowledge and experience might easily be provided either within existing recipes or within a "style suggestion". Thus, the Style Design Histories pages present the history of wines made detailing, when they can, much relevant information such as the above. They question the potential sources of inferior quality and assess the final product as a whole.

The Style Design approach

Wines may be made in different styles. Wine style is not limited to body and residual sugar level, but is a more encompassing concept. It is more a general description of the characteristics of the wine, and depends on fruit quality and winemaking techniques and processes. For example, a Chardonnay may be made in a crisp, floral/citrus style using stainless steel vats and reasonably mature fruit, or it may be made in a full-bodied, tropical fruit driven, oaky, butter/caramel style with a fuller mouth feel by using very ripe fruit, oak maturation/fermentation, lees stirring and malolactic fermentation. Likewise, an Elderflower wine may be made in a light, dry, fresh, directly floral style, or in a more complex style with some heavier floral aromas (for example, using raisins, honey, and rose petals) and some residual sweetness. These are two totally different ways of making the same varietal wine, and the resulting wines are incredibly different. The Style Design approach recognises this and takes these factors into consideration when designing a "recipe" or making a wine. The "style design" equivalent of a "recipe" would be to specify particular aims in terms of residual sweetness, final alcohol, acid, and tannin levels, fruit flavour profile, expected fruit yield and fruit varieties used, and the particular winemaking techniques and procedures used to direct the wine towards a particular style (e.g. maceration regime, lees stirring schedule, type and quantity of oak, etc). Ultimately, the number of wine styles is infinite. The concept of designing by style is simply a philosophical construct which aides the winemaker in producing a wine of a particular style. Casting wine in terms of style is not a new concept. After referring to a wine within the context of its fruit variety, stylistic referencing is the most commonly used way to describe a wine without the use of using specific descriptors. Thus the use of common phrases in the grape wine world such as "fruit driven style" or "modern style". To quote Kathleen Quealy, winemaker at T'Gallant Wines (Mornington Peninsula, Australia), "we all look at wine in terms of (grape) variety and I reckon varieties are bullshit. I reckon we make styles. We make white or red wine styles and you use the variety to make the style."

Unlike the extremely differing examples of Chardonnay and Elderflower above, there are few general standards or guidelines for specific fruit wine styles. Nor is there any information the author is aware of that specifically publishes common styles within the fruit winemaking world. (Though this is beginning to change - for example, see Fruit Wines of Ontario .) This kind of information is often thought to be restrictive, yet that is not the case. Instead, standards would simply provide informative guides and differing approaches to empower the winemaker into choosing their own style of wine. The winemaker would be free to ask themselves what style of wine they would like to make, and would then use the particular winemaking parameters (fruit types, winemaking techniques, etc) appropriate to obtaining that kind of wine style. Information concerning styles would define and illustrate popular or suitable styles of wine for particular fruits. Varying winemaking practises and their explanations attempt to be represented in this fashion on the Style Design page of this website to illustrate the differing winemaking philosophies and to present standards and common styles (if any exist). It is believed that the adoption and sharing of this kind of information will better fruit winemaking quality world wide.

Philosophy of approach

The approach outlined above is contrary to the traditional and current stream of thought, and will no doubt receive criticism because it is different. Please note, however, that this approach does not criticise those winemakers who are not concerned with detail and simply wish to produce wine. Nor is it a personal attack on anyone who chooses a differing philosophical approach to winemaking. Winemaking philosophy is a personal choice and this should be respected: in the end, each to their own taste.