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Technology = Better Bordeaux?

I should tell you, I briefly considered scrapping this post, as I’m sure it’s going to bring out the doomsayers among my readership, but that’s ok, the conversation needs to be had.

I came across an interesting article in Business Week Magazine last week that I thought perfectly captured the threshold on which the wine world, and France in particular finds itself today. It’s worth a read, but for the purposes of my point, let me summarize some key facts laid out in the article:

1. 4000 or so lesser known Bordeaux producers have gone out of business since the early 1990s.
2. Exports of Bordeaux are below their levels in the early 1990s, and they fell a dramatic 17% between 1998 and 2005.

This is the reality of the French wine market in which this story takes place. The story itself is as simple as it is scandalous to some: Bordeaux winemakers are utilizing chemical analysis of their wine to determine what actions they should take before and during harvest, as well as through the winemaking process. These steps can be as common as leaf thinning to allow more sun on the grapes in order to get them riper, to more unusual techniques like heating the grapes before crushing them, as well as presumably oak programs, blending, and chapatalization (the addition of sugar to the wine — a common technique in some regions of France).

The goal of all this? To make better tasting wines that sell both in France and abroad.

It’s at this point that the anti-wine-globalization protesters start banging on their screens.

“See,” they yell, “we told you that every wine is going to end up tasting the same because of Robert Parker and technology and capitalism!” And I have to bite my knuckles to keep from slapping them upside the head.

There is a great fear of technology in the wine world, and some sort of fucked-up uber-romanticism that exists out there for a lot of people – the notion that the use of technology in the winemaking process somehow “spoils the magic” or worse, results in wines that are somehow “unnatural” or “manipulated.” These folks are usually the ones that also claim that the strict appellation system in France is the last bastion of “quality assurance” that keeps the whole country from plunging into an abyss of winemaking that would result in every French wine tasting like Turley Zinfandel.

In case you’re interested in some thoughts along these lines, I’d suggest a look at a recent blog post by Eric Asimov (which yielded so many comments that he’s posted a follow-up here), and one of several discussions about France’s appellation system here on Vinography.

But back to this article. Without repeating the technology vs. no technology arguments that you will find articulated in the links I’ve just provided, what I find so explicitly clear in this article is the presentation of the economic and market realities that these winemakers in France are facing.

These realities are the perfect “test case” if you will for the benefits of technology in winemaking. Which is to say if thousands of winemakers are losing their livelihoods because no one is buying their wine, then when one of them makes his wine differently and then all of a sudden his wines start to sell, that’s a pretty clear message.

And that is exactly what has happened to the winemaker in this story. He made wine the “traditional” way for years and nearly went out of business. Now he’s making a different wine and it’s selling like hotcakes. The difference was taking a technological approach to his winemaking.

So the real question worth exploring here can be stated this way: did this guy make BETTER wine as a result of what he did.

I would argue yes, because it sold. People bought it, liked it, and bought some more, and now this guy can make a living as a winemaker and winegrower where before, that was in serious jeopardy.

But there are many people who would argue quite the opposite. They would suggest that his “lighter, fruitier” Bordeaux is a bastard product of the globalization of wine. Oh, yes, and I forgot, also a technologically created monstrosity: a “manipulated” wine that is most certainly the opposite of “natural.”

Most of the folks who offer such assessments, however, never manage to suggest what that winemaker ought to be doing in order to make a living, though. I find that those who most strongly adhere to the tenets of “natural winemaking” or “non-interventionalist” winemaking are least likely to admit that wine is a consumer product made by people who are trying to make enough money to feed their kids and live a good life.

The wine world is currently stuck between two eras, the pre-industrial era, and the future, whatever it may be. We do not have well-developed tools to think (as consumers or as critics) about what and how much technology helps to make a good wine better, and what or how much technology obliterates the goodness that all wine lovers seek in wine.

I do know that every major, old-guard wine critic I know shares the opinion that there is significantly more good wine being made now than there was 30 years ago. Some of that is due to new producers, but a lot of that is due to many people just making better wine, and a lot of that has to do with technology.

At the end of the day, mostly what I wish is that people (myself included) would just shut up about all this stuff and taste the damn wine. If it’s good we should buy it. If it is not, we should not.

Read the article. Then everyone vote with your palate.

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