Wine is the balance between art and science.
When I was first asked why I chose winemaking as a career I actually had to stop and think about it; because I love it? Yes, but there is more to it than that.
Growing up, I always had an interest in chemistry, biology, geology and geography but these pure sciences leave very little for personal interpretation or room to put your personal thumbprint on something. Winemaking seems to allow you to float between the pure science and artistic worlds, as you are required to be very specific with your calculations yet you have the freedom to artistically decide the outcome of the wine’s characters.
Biology is a natural science concerned with the study of living organisms, including their structure, function, growth, evolution, distribution, identification and taxonomy.
Winemakers need an understanding of biology to make wine, this includes the understanding of grapevines and the microbes. Grapevine biology is an important and complex process, as the same variety can grow and react very differently from site to site. An in depth understanding of a vineyard site needs to be match with an in depth knowledge of vine and grape biology in winemaking. Natural microorganisms such as yeast and bacteria are found in the vineyard and can vary widely in species. These microorganisms ultimately drive the wild fermentation process (fermentation being the important process in making alcohol). Each different parcel of grapes will bring a host of different microbes that will give each site a unique character when allowed to ferment naturally.
Chemistry is a branch of physical science that studies the composition, structure, properties and change of matter.
As a winemaker, you need an in-depth knowledge of wine chemistry and what will lead to positive or negative outcomes. For example, you need to understand the fermentation and ageing process and how the different properties of a wine such as alcohol, acid, tannin, oxygen and anthocyanin interact to give you a predictable outcome that will affect your wine stylistically. Understanding these processes will allow the winemaker to either help them along or stop them during the winemaking process. Anyone can squash grapes in a bucket and leave them in the sun but ultimately it is one's understanding of science that will allow those grapes to turn into wine, not a bucket of vinegar.
Geology is an earth science comprising the study of solid earth and the rocks of which it is composed.
The type of soil vineyards are grown on influence the heat retention/reflection, nutrient and water access to a vine. Well draining lean soils produce the most concentrated fruit characters, while deep rich and overly watered soils will result in over vigorous vines with watered down fruit characters.
Geography is a field of science devoted to the study of the land, the features and phenomena of the earth.
The geographical nature of a vineyard site will influence the character of a wine. With site orientation and local influencing characters such as a large body of water that can affect the temperature of a vineyard and the amount of sunshine hours it receives. All these factors work together differently to shape a vineyard site and the potential varieties it is suitable for.
The Art Form
While science is the backbone of making wine, a winemaker’s personal preferences and winemaking style is what makes wine an art form.
Winemakers have many decisions to make in the process of making wine, these include what winemaking processes to use, where to source the grapes and personal tastes. These decisions will influence the wine’s character and taste.
The winemaker will decide how the wine will be made, as there are multiple processes, for example if the wine will be be matured in oak (French, Hungarian or American?) or stainless steel and how long the wine will be in barrel before bottling. Biodynamic, organic, minimal intervention are increasingly becoming more popular, each slightly different than the other, and each influencing the character of a wine in slightly different ways.
A winemaker also has to decide where they will source their fruit from. Geographical location, region and vineyard, will influence the taste of the wine. The Adelaide Hills is a cool climate region, where the Barossa Valley is more warm climate. Grapes sourced from these regions will produce different tastes due to the difference in the sugar levels, fruit ripening development and speed, soils and a range of smaller variations from subregion to subregion, vineyard to vineyard. Ultimately, the winemaker will decide what characters they are looking for and seek grapes from sites that support those characters.
Flavour wise, a winemaker’s palate and olfactory centre is their most powerful tool. The sense of taste and smell can be honed and can detect nuances positive or negative far more quickly than a machine. Ultimately a winemaker will set out knowing what they want the wine to taste like. Using their taste and smell through the process will help them make decisions in the way the wine is made to aid winemakers producing the style of wine they wish to achieve. These senses are very personal and rely on the winemaker's past experiences and personal preferences. Since no two people share the same palate and olfactory senses, the use of these two senses can make a wine really special and personal.
Winemaking generally requires a bit of science knowledge, experience and personal style. A general knowledge of pure science will help to make wine, but personal preferences, experiences and style will allow a winemaker to create wines that are different to their neighbours. This is what makes wine so unique and interesting. Ultimately, wine is the balance between art and science.