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November 28, 2005

News Flash: Most wines do not get better with age.

"Freshness", a key idea behind Stormhoek, is not a gimmick, nor is it simply a sales tool. It is a critical indicator of wine quality, particularly in whites. Please forgive me for the long post, but for those who are interested, I would like to lay out our case for why Freshness Matters.

We’re redesigning our package and there are lots of people expressing their views on what the new Stormhoek pack should look like. The conversation has moved to the “Ultimate Freshness” indicator and while we have not posted about our Unified Theory of Freshness before, now seems like a good time. By the way, we will be publishing a white paper on the subject which will post it when its done.

1. In The Beginning

Winemakers have been on a 30-year intensive journey of improving wine quality. This is especially true of white wines. If we look back to the 70’s there were generally three types of white wine quality produced in the world:

1) The “good” stuff: White Burgundy, mostly barrel fermented, nice and rich in good years. The best ones had lots of flavour.

2) The ‘Other’: Old World types of whites such as Soave, Verdicchio, Frascati, most dry white Bordeaux. etc. These wines were usually 10 –11.5% alcohol, lean, acidic, often oxidized flavourless and not very nice.

3) ‘New World”, Californian or Australian wines that we pretty much like the second group above, but in order to give the wines some flavour, winemakers added lots of sugar before bottling. This made the thin and acidic wines more palatable.


2. Wine Gets Better

Slowly, winemakers realized that in order to make wines that are fruity, ripe and good tasting, instead of adding sugar to the finished wine, they needed to have ripe fruit to start. Historically (and continuing until today in the form of the ‘hang time’ debate) there is a conflict between winemakers and growers in that growers want to pick early (to increase yield and reduce risk of damage from rain, etc) and winemakers want fully ripened fruit -which requires leaving the grapes on the vine longer.

In the early 80’s there was a realization that “great wines are made in the vineyard”. Before that, there was a literal disconnect between nearly all growers and winemakers. Most winemakers simply made wine from the grapes they were given.

So, there developed this quest for getting more flavour in the wine. Riper fruit was the key, but then winemakers turned to other means for enhancing the wine: Oak. Oak, in the form or barrels or chips can be a useful tool. It can add flavour and richness to wine. However in the 1980’s the trend became ‘more is better’ and when combined with very ripe fruit, many ‘quality’ winemakers were producing overly alcoholic (more ripeness equals more alcohol) wines that were very very oaky. There was no fresh fruit, just oak and alcohol.

However, during this time, there were also a group of winemakers, mostly in Australia, that were pioneering the use of “reductive” white wine production techniques. Simply, reductive winemaking is about doing dozens of things along the way from the moment the grapes are picked until the wine is bottled, to ensure that the juice and resulting wine has very limited contact with oxygen. Why? Because all that nice bright, fresh fruit that we like in certain white wines (especially Sauvignon Blanc) is very sensitive to oxidation, and when the wine oxidizes the primary fruit flavours disappear almost immediately. The most consistent expression of this style of wine is found in New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.

Interestingly, there are additions made to the wine, like ascorbic acid, which is basically Vitamin-C, that helps keep the wine fresh-the same stuff lots of people take as anti-oxidant supplements. Yeast cells which are also available as food supplements also have strong anti-oxidative powers.

So, ripe fruit, made reductively with little or no oak became the goal. This is provided bright, fresh, ripe wines that were then bottled and shipped to market.

3. It Becomes All About the Package

The next “challenge’ then arose. Many producers found that after six or nine months in bottle, their nice and fresh wines were not so nice and fresh anymore. Why? The natural corks that were being used were not particularly good seals as air entered the bottles, oxidizing the wine. Also, there was (and is) a huge problem with corks imparting a bad flavour to the wine. This ‘taint’ is particularly easy to spot in fresh white wines.

So, the answer for many was to move to synthetic or plastic corks. These corks promised no corky off flavours and appeared to be perfect seals that would exclude oxygen from the bottle.

Unfortunately, for many reasons, producers found that after six or twelve months their nice, fresh, whites were still oxidizing in bottle. They were just not keeping their freshness as hoped. The fact remains that even under the best of circumstances. Reductively made white wines loose their fresh fruity flavours over a couple of years.

People searched for a better packaging solution and finally came to screw caps. Yes, those old fashioned jug closures were reinvented and today represent the absolute best seal for wines that need to stay fresh and bright. They are easy to use, reseal the bottle in case you don’t finish it and it keeps our wine that we bottle nice and fresh.

4. The Unified Theory of Freshness

So the industry started with thin, oxidized wines in the 70’s. Growing, production techniques and equipment advances in the 80’s and 90’s gave us the possibility to produce nice fresh vibrant wines and then packaging innovations of the last several years have allowed us to deliver the wine to the consumer at its best.

But, there is one thing that the industry has not done... and this is really fundamental to the enjoyment of the wine that so much effort goes into making. The industry has not told the consumer in no uncertain terms, when the wine will be at its best to drink.
Reductively made wines do not last forever. They only have a certain window during which time they are at their best. However, most people have the illusion that all wine gets better (and better) with age. This is only true for a few percent of the wine produced in the world and becomes less true as time goes on.

So, wine grown made and packaged to keep its freshness and our little indicator telling people what they really need to know: When to drink it at its best... Stormhoek’s Unified Theory of Freshness.

Posted by Jason at November 28, 2005 5:03 PM

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Comments

Very informative. I had heard that screw tops were the best at sealing the wine, but had never heard the rationale.

Can you explain a bit how the oxygen is kept away from he fruit?

Posted by: Nick Davis at November 28, 2005 5:27 PM

Sorry to rain on your parade Jason but I'd suggest restricting (most of) your remarks to white wines. Id do note you make the point in and amongst.

The French have understood the concept of freshness for donkeys years - witness Muscadet, Aligoté, Champigny Cauvignon, many of the Chinons, most of the Loire Valley whites and rosés, Beaujolais Nouveau (only in 'good' years though!) and on and on.

The great reds don't (mostly) fall into this way of categorising. Indeed, I find it amazing that sommeliers are able to assess, sometimes many years in advance, and often with accuracy, the 'age' at which a good red will be at its best.

I'm no expert, but I spent enough time in France to learn to appreciate the difference in styles.

Freshness is just one more attribute for a relatively young wine. Why not keep it simple?

Posted by: Dennis Howlett at November 28, 2005 5:43 PM

Sure, Dennis, but we're not selling to French wine buffs. Brits and Yanks etc.

Posted by: hugh macleod at November 28, 2005 6:17 PM

Nick,

As long as the fruit is on the vine oxidation is minimized. Although, there have been a number of studies that suggest the flavour components of varieties such as Sauvignon Blanc are so volatile that they dissipate on the vine in sunlight, this supports some of the observations that cool and or foggy/cloudy climates are good for Sauvignon.

The time at which the reductive process begins is at the point of picking. Hand picking is preferred to mechanical as fewer berries break in the picking process and the bins where the grapes are collected have additives such as metabisulfite and ascorbic acid in them to retard oxidation.

Once in the winery, all of the tanks, presses and transfer lines are gassed with either nitrogen or CO2 and kept cold. The process must be carefully controlled.

Posted by: jason at November 28, 2005 10:02 PM

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