An article that first appeared in Meininger's Wine Business International
One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter. What an Anglo-Saxon might call a perfectly decent glass of Chardonnay or Shiraz might strike a Frenchman as the essence of industrial wine. The precise definition of what is and isn't an industrial wine is, however, really very hard to pin down, especially now that the French authorities have finally decided to permit the use of oak chips – usually cited by Gallic stalwarts as typical of the industrial methods used in the New World.
The person who deserves the greatest credit for promoting the concept of industrial wine is Aimé Guibert the passionate creator of the Mas de Daumas Gassac estate at Aniane in the Herault, who last year proposed an absolute division between wine described in this way and what he called "Vigneron wine". Guibert is a fascinatingly complex character. A forthright spokesman for French and European wine and their history, he has paradoxically managed, by example, to do as much to undermine the hierarchy of the French appellation system as many a New World – loving critic. A bottle of Guibert's top 2003 red currently costs rather more than the some retailers ask for a Chateau Rauzan-Gassies of the same vintage. In other words a Vin de Pays de l'Herault trumps a second growth Margaux. Guibert is also one of the heroes of Jonathan Nossiter's film Mondovino which, among other things, chronicled the saga of the winemaker's successful fight to keep Robert Mondavi from investing in a swathe of hillsides close to his own estate. The film revealed that Guibert had, in fact, discussed a possible sale of his beloved domaine to Mondavi before negociations broke down and the Americans resolved to go it alone. It did not, however, include the fact that Guibert had previously had similar talks with Southcorp, owners of Penfolds, Lindemans and other Australian brands he would certainly qualify as industrial. There are some who would mischievously describe such contact as sleeping with the enemy; Guibert might call it pragmatism.
A similar pragmatism is evident in Guiberts argument about industrial wine. Europe he implies, in a style thats reminiscent of Orwells Four Legs Good Two Legs Bad makes real wine while the Australians and Americans make the other stuff. French vignerons he states always produced real wines, intimately linked to the climate and soil. Quantity was not a problem. They produced very little, but it was good. This is an attractive picture, but one that adds a rosy tint\nto reality. In the first half of the 1800s, the French author Stendhal visited chai, or wine factory where out of wine, sugar, iron filings and some\nflower essences, they make wine of every country . A few decades later a correspondent to Punch noted that a firm in Sete (then known as Cette) had won a bronze medal for imitation wines at the Paris Exposition of 1867. Industrially produced wine is no more modern than the protesting winemakers we have recently seen in Bordeaux and the Languedoc. In 1907, people died when growers rioted against a wine glut and low prices. In the 1930s, a Statut de la Viticulture was enacted to try to eliminate surpluses but these continued, thanks partly to the fact that, as recently as the late 1950s a third of the wine grapes in France were productive, low quality, American varieties and hybrids planted after the uprooting of phylloxera-hit vines at the end of the 9th century. In 1971, a more serious attempt to tackle the ituation came with the implementation of the Plan Chirac which led to the\nwidespread uprooting of vines and vineyards, but surpluses are still endemic. Today, France has given up a third of its wine-producing land and there are few who would claim that what has been lost yielded what Guibert calls little but good\u0026#39;. When I moved to France in 1975, the fastest selling wine came in glass\nor plastic litre-bottles with absolutely no indication of origin; the only reason for buying one example rather than another lay in its alcoholic strength. Hardly the Vin Vigneron son of the Old Europe, made in small quantities with lots of time that Aime Guibert prefers fondly to remember.",1] ); //--> 'industrial'. There are some who would mischievously describe such contact as sleeping with the enemy; Guibert might call it pragmatism.
A similar pragmatism is evident in Guibert's argument about industrial wine. Europe he implies, in a style that's reminiscent of Orwell's 'Four Legs Good Two Legs Bad' makes real wine while the Australians and Americans make the other stuff. 'French vignerons' he states 'always produced real wines, intimately linked to the climate and soil… Quantity was not a problem. They produced very little, but it was good'. This is an attractive picture, but one that adds a rosy tint to reality. In the first half of the 1800s, the French author Stendhal visited a 'chai, or wine factory' where 'out of wine, sugar, iron filings and some flower essences, they make wine of every country'. A few decades later a correspondent to Punch noted that a firm in Sete (then known as Cette) had won a bronze medal for 'imitation wines' at the Paris Exposition of 1867. Industrially produced wine is no more modern than the protesting winemakers we have recently seen in Bordeaux and the Languedoc. In 1907, people died when growers rioted against a wine glut and low prices. In the 1930s, a Statut de la Viticulture was enacted to try to eliminate surpluses but these continued, thanks partly to the fact that, as recently as the late 1950s a third of the wine grapes in France were productive, low quality, American varieties and hybrids planted after the uprooting of phylloxera-hit vines at the end of the 19th century. In 1971, a more serious attempt to tackle the situation came with the implementation of the Plan Chirac which led to the widespread uprooting of vines and vineyards, but surpluses are still endemic.
Today, France has given up a third of its wine-producing land and there are few who would claim that what has been lost yielded what Guibert calls 'little but good'. When I moved to France in 1975, the fastest selling wine came in glass or plastic litre-bottles with absolutely no indication of origin; the only reason for buying one example rather than another lay in its alcoholic strength. Hardly the '"Vin Vigneron" son of the Old Europe, made in small quantities with lots of time' that Aime Guibert prefers fondly to remember.
So how does Guibert define the difference between Vigneron Wine and Industrial wine today. 'When the estate extends beyond a few tens of hectares; when the vigneron doesn't know his vines; when he doesn't see his grapes come in year after year marked by the difference in seasons and vintages… it's no longer wine; it is perhaps an industrial wine, but no longer wine in the traditional European sense of the term.'
Hmmm. Guibert raises some interesting issues here. Chateau Latour has 65ha of vines and Chateau Margaux has 78, do these figures fall within Guibert's 'few tens of hectares'? Or are these wines industrial? Presumably, according to his rules, 'Vigneron' status would go to Australian wines like Bass Phillip Premium Pinot Noir (4ha); Jasper Hill Emily's Paddock (3.2ha) and Tahbilk's 1860 Shiraz (1/2 ha, planted in, yes, 1860). But what is one to make of large volume French wines like Guigal Cotes du Rhone (500,000 cases) or Duboeuf Beaujolais, or wines produced by big cooperatives such as Chablis or Tain in the Rhone. The grapes may be grown and picked by vignerons, but it's hard to imagine how their individual fingerprints are going to survive the process of crushing, fermenting and blending by the negociant or coop.
Vigneron Wines, Guibert continues 'have a planting density of 7,000-15,000 vines per hectare; the same area of vineyard for industrial wine would have only 2-3,000 vines. This statement ought to worry Bordeaux where the density in the more basic parts of the region is often less than 2,000 and where even such top quality estates as Chateau Magdelaine in St Emilion have only 6,000 vines/ha. Besides, the density argument ignores the fact that the number of vines needed per hectare changes in direct proportion to the amount of sunlight the plants receive. Cool, cloudy Northern Europe needs much more tightly packed vines than sunny South America or Australia.
Curiously, and perhaps wisely if he wishes to pursue a Europe = good; New World = bad argument, Guibert does not raise the subject of irrigation, a process that is is often referred to by others as typical of the industrial character of the New World. Unfortunately for this argument, there is a growing move towards dry-farming in countries like Australia where water resources are short, and growing calls for irrigation to be allowed in Europe during the hot dry summers caused by global warming. But what of the use by Christian Moueix of a helicopter to keep his vines dry during a rainstorm? And what of the widespread use in France of reverse-osmosis, must concentrators that cleverly remove excess rainwater from grape juice. Isn't the use of these by some of the top chateaux in the Medoc just a touch industrial?
Other pieces of commonly used equipment that are widely used in both New and Old Worlds include harvesters, rotary fermentation tanks and of course the big giropalette riddling machines that have almost universally replaced the human beings who once shook the yeast from champagne bottles. What could be more industrial than those? And what of the use of micro-oxygenation developed in Cahors and now used by Bordeaux chateaux such as Canon La Gaffelière? The newest computerized pneumatic bag presses and pumps to be found in top Old World cuveries are a lot more high-tech than their predecessors, but they are also more gentle to the grapes. And doesn't the continued use of traditional basket presses by big Australian firms like Hardys (for its Chateau Reynella reds) undermine accusations of industrialization? Meanwhile Pascal Delbeck of Chateau Bel-Air has come up with an ingenious notion in the form of a subtly porous latex bladder that can be introduced into a tank and inflated with oxygen which it then gently introduces into the wine while removing undesirable aromas. Delbeck is a highly spiritual, gently bearded giant, and one of the least likely industrializers I can imagine. But what if his invention had been devised at UC Davis or Roseworthy instead of in St Emilion?
One of the New World 'industrial' practices that is most frequently criticised in France is the use of oak chips or staves as a cheap alternative to new barrels. I've always thought that this was a slightly odd target to choose, given the readiness of French critics to applaud "garage" Bordeaux that have been given 200% (both alcoholic and malolactic fermentation ) new oak treatment. If it is legitimate to flavour wine with wood, does it really matter whether the wine goes into the oak, or vice versa? However, there is a far more dubious New World practice that has gone unnoticed. When Californian winemakers add tannin, they can opt for it to come in liquid form with extra vanilla or mocha flavouring.
Use of other flavouring essences certainly goes on, as the recent scandal in South Africa revealed, but it is far from certain that this – or the addition of flavoured tannins - is restricted to the New World. The firms that produce these products are multinational and it is hard to imagine either that they refuse to sell them in Europe, or that European winemakers are collectively so morally perfect that they'd refuse to buy them. But if flavourings are frowned upon, what is one to make of the use of clones, cultured yeasts and enzymes developed to increase a wine's aromatic character? Much of the 10 or 11 grams per litre of sugar that is to be found in many of the 120,000,000 bottles of Yellow Tail that were sold last year (and in the myriad copies of this all-conquering Australian brand) will have come in the form of grape concentrate. This is effectively the same stuff that is legally used to chaptalise - raise the alcoholic strength of - French wine, but its use today is far more widespread than it used to be.
One internationally applied example of industrialization that is mentioned by Guibert and with which I'd agree is the widespread use of fertilisers, herbicides, fungicides and pesticides. With any luck, the products used to protect the grapes from disease and insects shouldn't have too much effect on the flavour and character of the wine (though it has happened), but the fertilisers certainly will. Two or three decades ago, the acid:alkaline balance – the pH – of most red wine would have been below 3.4; today the figure is often likely to be closer to 3.6, 3.7 or even 3.8. In simple terms, wines with lower pH will be 'harder' and more obviously acidic and less immediately drinkable, but they will have greater resistance to bacteria and oxidation and possibly greater longevity. Much of the change in balance can be attributed to a trend to later harvesting driven by a taste for riper grapes, but many believe that the phosphates in fertilisers have contributed significantly to the rise in pH. (As Jean-Claude Mas a go-ahead producers has noted in Languedoc Roussillon, vines planted on previously untended land produce grapes with lower pH). Whatever the cause, Old World winemakers have had far more need to correct the balance of their wines by adding tartaric acid; a common technique in the New World, but traditionally frowned upon in Europe. The practice of acidification most famously came to light in Burgundy where the laws had to be changed after they were challenged by the winemaker at the Hospices de Beaune.
Ultimately, it seems to me that, with the exception of bio-dynamic producers who abjure most technology and chemical treatments (and for the moment we're talking about an infinitesimally small proportion of the global wine industry) any attempt to categorise wines as purely industrial or artisanal involves tiptoeing through a minefield. If I had to choose, I suppose I'd rather drink a wine that has been made from organically grown grapes but produced using oak chips and sweetened with grape concentrate than one that is bone dry, aged in an old barrel – but reeking of sulphor dioxide and made from vines that were dripping with chemical treatments. But quite frankly, given that choice, I'd far rather opt for a beer, even an industrial beer. Sometimes it can be very tough picking the terrorists from the freedom fighters.