Is technological development robbing wine of its authenticity? Let’s look at the pros and cons.
| The use of technology in vineyards has grown over the past 20 years.
Over the past two decades, the use of technology in both the vineyard and the cellar has exploded – but what does this mean for wine transparency in general?
While some find that technological advances have only helped to improve the quality – and the reflection of the object – next to the glass, others feel vehemently the opposite. Two industry leaders shared their personal beliefs with Wine-Searcher.
Wine importer Neil Rosenthal left his corporate law job 40 years ago and for the past four decades has devoted his life to seeking out terroir-focused wines produced in the hands of family estates across Europe. Over time, Rosenthal has seen countless technological advances find their way into vineyards and cellars – and while their presence can be helpful, he’s not always convinced that using them is the best way to create vibrant wines, specific for the place.
Rosenthal explains that while modern technology has proven to be quite useful, particularly in being able to limit the number of bad harvests through advances in agriculture as well as by controlling conditions in the cellar, he is left wondering whether this strong control ultimately results in the most transparent and exciting wines.
“I’ve found that being able to control to an extreme degree what happens during fermentation and élevage can take some of the ‘mystery’ out of wine,” he says.
To illustrate his point, Rosenthal looks to Yura. “In the Jura, there’s this magical moment when the bacteria rears its head and takes over, and I think the trend now in the region is to make wines that are too clean, and to start to minimize the important element of oxidation that’s always been there there,” he says, quoting the whole under sail experienced as quite uncontrollable.
“I think the classic traditional Jura vigneron respects [this lack of control] and takes more of a devolution attitude rather than trying to drive the process to the extreme,” he continues. In addition to excessive control through technology, Rosenthal cites a lack of extended aging as another reason for the lack of “magic” in certain wines. “I think that for economic reasons as well as for taste reasons, many vignerons are eager to bottle wines earlier than they normally would, and sometimes that rush to get the wine into the bottle limits the development of character in the wine,” he says. citing the ability to control temperature and advance certain vinification processes as the reason for the possibility of early bottling.
On the other hand, some winemakers believe that technology is essential to producing the best wines possible. “My main point is that technology can only be used to improve terroir,” says Andrea Lonardi, winemaker at Tuscany-based Val di Suga, saying you should never abuse technology, but rather use it. use an open-minded and logical way. “The only time mystery and magic are captured in a wine is when a glass of wine is a true reflection of the beauty and potential of its terroir—grape variety, climate, soil,” Lonardi continues, saying he believes the wines, produced in Val di Suga are still more artisanal than others, despite the winery’s application of technology.
“The technology we’re using just helps us understand the terroir better,” he says, citing DSS (a decision support model) and the ability to understand the stress index using technology as an imperative to understanding the change in climate and avoiding its negative effects.
To break it down further, Lonardi cites four different types: biotechnology, mechanical technology, sensor technology, and genetic technology.
“I tend to avoid biotech as much as possible because it’s developed for two main reasons: to fix problems or to develop something like something else,” he says, citing cultured yeast and special strains of bacteria and added tannins as some of the the biggest popular. “However, mechanical technology has helped tremendously in terms of machines in the vineyards and cellars, while sensor technology has helped create tools to detect vitality, stress index and humidity,” he says, pointing to a particular affinity for the humidity factor as he notes that one can greatly improve vineyard productivity through proper vineyard management decisions.
© Efficient Vineyard Project
| Vineyard mapping is becoming increasingly important for growers and winemakers.
Lonardi says the technology is also particularly useful in vineyards, as it can often communicate what the human eye can’t see.
“If you use remote sensing, NDVI maps (vigority maps) or soil maps, you can tell which part of the vineyard is the ideal place to grow a particular rootstock,” he says, stating that these types of technologies work equally well for both large areas , as well as smaller plots of land.
“Terroir is not just what it is,” Lonardi states, noting that what makes a wine “good” is highly subjective, as well as highly related to human sensibilities. Lonardi believes that through the use of technology, winemakers can reduce subjectivity and become more objective in measuring quality markers (acidity, tannin structure, freshness, longevity, etc.). “The beauty of technology is not when it is used to replace human capacity, but when it is used to complement human capacity and sensitivity,” he says.
So does using technology qualify as manipulation? The answer really lies in the eye of the beholder. According to Rosenthal, there’s never an upside to messing with wine. “I don’t think there’s ever a positive side to manipulation, which is using outside influences to change a wine,” he says, citing uniformity and less distinctive versions of potential wines as a common result. However, he agrees that making much more regular quantities of proper wine is an advantage. “Despite climate change, people can still produce consistently good wines year after year,” he says.
Does this deprive the wine of vintage transparency and therefore lack of authenticity? One can argue against such a position.
Lonardi notes that some aspects of genetic technology, such as the ability to introduce resistance to disease or water stress, are ultimately positive, although they can become negative if they are geared toward producing wines with special flavors. “I can understand the desire to produce wines with more freshness and vitality, but I don’t agree with the approach of applying technology to hide or modify terroir,” he says.
Rosenthal believes that excessive technology also creates room for error, and because each vintage is unique, the lack of transparent variation is reduced. “I’m afraid that the well-educated young vigneron somehow approaches the wine from a point of view where they want to make sure there are no mistakes,” he says. “By strictly controlling every aspect, you lose the mystery of the wine. Surprising things can happen during ascension.”
For Lonardi, however, the pros outweigh the cons. “Technology is the new tool of today’s artisans,” he says. “To be contemporary, we have to use technology while remaining very transparent and authentic,” he says, saying technology has allowed many winemakers to advance as well as better communicate their unique locations.
So are technologically produced wines less authentic? According to Rosenthal, they are not less honest, but less volatile. “The spectrum of flavors, aromas and textures shortens, which doesn’t make the wine uninteresting, but it makes it less interesting – drinkable and enjoyable, but perhaps less memorable,” he says.
Lonardi, of course, feels differently. “Technology doesn’t change my passion or vision for wine, it just gives better opportunities to develop it.”
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