Bordeaux Wine Guide: Winemaking Controversies

Having looked at the basics of viticulture and winemaking in Bordeaux, it would be remiss of me to move on to look at the wines themselves without first acknowledging some of the more controversial aspects of winemaking in Bordeaux. The last few decades have seen the arrival not only of new techniques in the vineyard but also new winemaking technologies in the cellars, and all of these new beliefs and practices have the potential to radically alter the style of Bordeaux’s wines. Indeed, it is clear that some wines produced in Bordeaux today reflect these practices far more than they do their grape varieties or their terroir of origin.

Of course, Bordeaux has changed much over the last hundred years, and every new development must once have seemed strange and perhaps even questionable. Some, such as improving hygiene in the cellars, the use of cultured yeast, and encouraging the malolactic fermentation seem so ordinary now it is hard to imagine such processes ever seeming new and remarkable. But we have to remember that our modern-day understanding of microbiology is very different to what it was only a few decades ago, never mind one or two centuries ago. It was in the 17th century that Anthony van Leeuwenhoek saw, using the new instrument (what we would call a microscope) he had made, tiny organisms living in dental tartar, mankind’s first glimpse into the world of bacteria and yeasts. The subsequent process of discovery and understanding of their relevance, both to winemaking and medicine, was painfully slow. It was the mid-19th century before Louis Pasteur recognised that fermentation was a process driven by microorganisms, despite the fact mankind had been baking bread and making wine for millennia. As for malolactic bacteria, these were only identified as being responsible for the ‘second’ fermentation by Émile Peynaud in the late 20th century.

Bordeaux: Winemaking COntroversies

My point is that what at one point in history seems new, controversial, radical and perhaps even subversive does, after decades or centuries, sometimes seem the norm. The techniques and technologies described in this instalment of my guide may also, one day, come to be the norm. On the other hand, some will perhaps be abandoned, as the Bordelais realise the results are not so desirable as they once thought, whereas others may well be superseded by new and perhaps even more unusual methodologies. Still others, I suspect, will remain a mainstay of winemaking in Bordeaux, but will nevertheless remain furtive, processes sufficiently harmful to the natural, honest, pure and unsullied image Bordeaux likes to present regarding its wines that they will continue to be carried out in secret, away from the prying eyes of interested wine journalists.

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