Lots of times, when people find out I’m interested in making wine, they ask, “are you taking classes?” They seem to think making wine means you have to be a scientist.
Nevermind the millenia of winemaking history, long before anyone understood anything about the chemical and biological process. After all, it wasn’t even until the 20th century when we first understood something as important as malolactic fermentation. I’ve had wines older than that, and they tasted just fine.
Real fine, in fact, but that’s another story.
The point is, you can make wine without understanding the science behind it. I’ve done that for six years. But I recognize that I now have the experience to benefit from learning more about the science of winemaking. Not to become a scientist, not even to radically shift my artisanal perspective toward the technological. Rather, to know the rules better before I break them.
So this spring, I broke down and enrolled in Science of Winemaking, an eleven week course offered by Chemeketa Community College in Salem, OR. Coincidentally, the Oregon Wine News’ latest edition has a nice article about the Northwest Viticulture Center where my course and many others are held on the red soils of the Eola Hills.
My instructor is Barney Watson, a UC Davis graduate and longtime teacher here in Oregon. I’m very impressed by his knowledge and ability to communicate complex ideas fairly simply. Prior to reading the OWP article, I didn’t know that Watson was the guy behind Tyee wines. I’ve never tried any, but will seek them out just to see more of what he’s all about.
The class itself is challenging to this technical novice. My chemistry background is ancient for a 37-year old. But my interest in learning technical details is apparently strong enough to make the weekly three-hour sessions fly by, leaving my wishing for more.
We’re four weeks into the class, and we’ve mostly focused on grape chemistry and some viticulture as it relates to what this class is all about – making wine.
So we’re investigating the development of berries through the growing season, looking into the chemical compounds that become the elements and precursors of wine chemistry. Some is review, such as the various acids you find in grapes (tartaric and malic, some citric). Some is incredibly complex and still mysterious to me, such as carboxyl groups and benzene ring structures of various molecules in grapes.
What have I learned so far? Perhaps the most signficant thing is the reason behind why “canopy management” is so important in the vineyard. Specifically, that in cooler climates such as the Willamette Valley, an open canopy of vine leaves reduces mildew and other disease pressures by allowing more airflow throughout the plants. Open canopies also provide direct or indirect sunlight and heat on the grape clusters to allow for chemical changes in the berries that encourage what we perceive as ripe and pleasing aromas and flavors in most wines.
Too much light and heat can be negative depending on the site, grape variety, and season. But I think we can attribute the development of increasingly higher quality wines from our region to open canopies more than any other factor. Better winemaking technique is a close second. But as the old saying goes, great wine is made in the vineyard. Open canopies, and the chemical transformation they allow, are evidence of that.
More on the class as we move from the vineyard into the cellar and look more squarely at the subject at hand, the science of winemaking.