Time, energy, grape skins
It’s possible to talk and write about wine without end. It’s important to know the producer, the place it was harvested from, the wine region and the history. The feeling that the wine’s style, structure, label and bottle evokes for us is also important.
Apart from these, the same amount of time can be spent talking about the technology that has developed around the profession by today and can operate well-known wineries that make predictable and faultless wines in large quantities year after year with clockwork accuracy. Parallel to this, another phenomenon has popped up: the natural wine that is encompassing the world’s wine regions. Similar to fermentation, it bubbled, made a stir and ushered in several unwritten rules. This fermenting agent is spectacularly settling down – what is valuable and genuine has already been accepted and practiced by several large estates with an alternative way of thinking, and the early extremes are becoming chiselled into a style at most places. It is also apparent who will get into line and who will remain revolutionaries for ever.
In the meantime, if we put all of this aside, some kind of simplicity can be found in wine to which one can always return. For what, everything that’s worth knowing can be summed up in half a sentence. There are winemakers who keep this informality when they work in the cellar. They skip a few steps compared to what’s written in the textbooks and instead they make decisions based on their intuition, they have a great knowledge of the place of growth, they look for good flavours, and fall back on tried and tested methods. Regardless of ideology, their style is independent and timeless.
For our April+ selection we picked one wine each from six such winemakers, and alongside the wines each of them talked about a subject that characterises them.
Ernő Sagmeister – The time
“From the beginning, I have always felt something lacking after the first racking, then again after the addition of sulphur. Around me, everyone made wine this way. I felt that this way the wines would have no depth, nor would my relationship with wine and winemaking. I started experimenting with low sulphur use in 2011-2012 and due to the approach, I stopped racking the Kadarka and the Pinot from 2013. After 2014, even the whites could only get into tanks after long barrel ageing on the lees, then into the bottles. I’d read the Burgundy descriptions, but this process is mine: the reds are put into the barrels without settling with a relatively high amount of residue. I do settle the whites, though. Knowing about yeast fining, I trust the lees. On the other hand, the question of reduction came up, the same way as oxidation, because of the long time with no sulphur. Some wines can even spend as much as three years in the barrel without any sulphur. That’s why the lees are very important. It was a joy to see on an occasion during a winter visit to Piemonte how they make reduction happen for the sake of long ageability. And fine oxidation can give maturity and layers to the wine
I’ve always been attracted to the Latin winemaking tradition – in my world, the Hungarian way belongs to it, too. I’m willing to make a sacrifice, and let go of a bit of tautness. The microbial processes require time, the different micro-organisms hand the baton on to one another, and this possibly slightly enhances the complexity. That’s the main point of ageing – by the time a longer balance is formed, by the time movements stop, excesses have come out, and the settling is finished. Patience is often needed.”
Philippe Pacalet – The energy
“It’s not the big body but the energy in wines that really matters. We hold the grapes in high esteem, but we do not destem but ferment them in whole bunches together with the stems. This way, fermentation is cooler and less forceful. It’s similar to slow cooking. All my wines are made the same way, only the place changes from where we harvest the grapes. We don’t use sulphur during winemaking and only ferment with indigenous yeast. I’ve always made my wines this way and have never tried any other methods. And the reason I use the old and simple methods is not because I stick to the past but because I’m convinced by them.”
Franz Weninger – Own yeast
“I realised working in nature that the greatest thing we owe to the soil is that it breaks organic materials down into humus. Science has revealed little of this process that is controlled by millions of microbes in the ground, but we can see every spring that the fallen leaves and branches turn into living soil. And the grapes turn into wine and the larger part of the job is done by yeast fungi here as well.
The last few years have been very dry here in the vineyards and I realised that it doesn’t just affect the biome in the soil but also wears out and weakens the yeasts that ferment the wines. So, I had the idea to connect these two worlds, the soil and the wine.
We started an experiment in 2019 when right before the harvest, we pulled a disc plough softly between every second row, moving the top layer of the soil very gently. We stir up the fungi and bacteria into the air, hoping that some of them will stick to the bunches, then this together with the grapes gets into the cellar and our fermentation will be even better. It will turn out in time whether it really adds to the wine but until then, what’s certain is that we’ll keep seeking our own methods, our own ways.”
Dr. Miklós Illyés – Bottling straight from the barrel
“About a decade ago, God gifted me with a great Kadarka crop, both in terms of quantity and quality. I was a beginner in winemaking at the time, and what I saw from my renowned and qualified colleagues was that they filtered and fined their wines before bottling, so that the wines remained stable.
I believed them, and based on the results I got in the lab, I filtered and fined this great wine, even though it was transparent and pristinely pure. At the end of the process, before bottling, I tasted the wine and I was greatly disappointed. The wine’s previously fiery, fresh and fruity character was destroyed and had mostly disappeared. They put my mind at rest but I was inconsolable.
I started thinking about what could have gone wrong, and I realised that the filtering techniques of today go as far as the level of sterilization, so the wine becomes sterile. As the result of this process, the macromolecules, which have a great importance from the aspect of flavour, are filtered out. The fining prior to the filtering has a similar effect, as the fining agents grab the material that is interesting and exciting for the flavours.
Based on all of this, I decided 10 years ago that I’d bottle all my wines without filtering and fining, in such a way that I pour the wine directly into the bottle from the barrels. We even got rid of the pump from our cellar because we regarded that the cavitation and the pressure load can have a negative effect on the quality of the wine.
Of course, the above can be criticised and discussed with counter arguments. Still, in the last 10 years these wines made in this ‘eccentric’ way have brought a lot of joy and pleasure, both to myself and to my friends. I regard everybody as my friend if they taste and drink my wines with pleasure, even if I don’t know them personally, yet.”
Alvaro Palacios – The local variety
“Mencía – the number one ingredient which is a given and has presumably been here for centuries. The other ingredient is the region itself, the several vineyards with very old vines that have never grown tall because of the poor slate soil. It’s thanks to my nephew, Ricardo Perez, that we make wine here as well. We could have gone to so many places, where we could have got along more easily but I’ve always chosen the more obscure wine regions, the ones that few people paid attention to. In Bierzo, in the middle of different climatic effects, we’ve learnt with Mencía how to make aromatic, floral and fragile wines with such energy that we still admire and find exiting even today.”
Frigyes Bott – The grape skins
“Fermentation on the skins is as important to the wine as spice is for food. It can add lots of favour and fragrance. The same way as the aim is to achieve harmony and the right proportions with food, we use skin contact as a spice with wine. Just as it’s important in cooking for spices not to supress the main ingredients, in winemaking we don’t want skin contact to block the place of growth character. With the varieties we ferment either the berries or the whole bunches, adjusting to the given vintage, and we try to find the right proportion for keeping on the skins, which we measure not in hours but in days.”