Is whole bunch and skin contact the "new" new oak and extraction?

In the last 11 years working with what some label natural wine and I call wine (we can leave this for another time!), there has been a tendency to embrace everything under that umbrella as good (or bad, depending on your leanings).

Opinion piece, by Olly Bartlett, wine importer

Again and again, those of us that work with and drink these kind of wines have to answer against certain critiques (‘the wines don’t age, they fall apart easily, there is no standard of certification, where are the rules etc etc’… move on. Do you eat artisanal cheese?) despite the vast majority of these wines being very classic and benchmarks of their regions. But moving away from this oft-discussed subject, where one has to use classical Barolos or Chablis as an example, there is a debate growing around expressions of terroir and varietal/regional typicity.

In the same way that many of us view over-extraction, overuse of toasted new oak, high alcohol, reliance on added yeasts and other wine ‘make-up’ as masks that completely obliterate terroir and ‘realness’, is there an argument that certain prevalent winemaking techniques also have an equally detrimental effect on the true expression from that area? For a few years now in the international wine professional circles at salons, wine fairs and talking socially with other importers home and abroad, I have heard the phrase ‘This is just a winemaking wine’ uttered, often with some contempt.

Specifically, two techniques have come in for some attention: firstly, whole bunch fermentation/carbonic maceration, where rather than being destemmed, whole bunches (normally of red wine grapes) are put in tanks and a layer of carbon dioxide put on top to avoid any contact with oxygen during the first phase of fermentation. The classic Beaujolais (the birthplace of the natural wine ‘movement’) method, this has become common in many regions. It produces juicy, fresh ‘vin de soif’ (wines for thirst, for drinking not for thinking). These are often very delicious but some would say taste the same rather than representing their region. This argument is often used when discussing the Parkerisation of wine (high alcohol, heavy oak, loads of extraction) led to Cabs from France, Chile, Italy and the US tasting almost exactly the same, a common complaint amongst natural devotees.

The second technique would be skin contact white winemaking to produce ‘orange’ wines. I have heard it argued that this technique also masks terroir, that the wines become so aromatic, sometimes with unbalanced tannins or other flavours, as to be indistinguishable from each other. Again, these wines often are very delicious and very food friendly. But are they made for their own sake, as a whim of the winemaker or following a trend? Or is this the way that wines have been made in that region (ie Georgia) for centuries?

Does this matter? After all, broadening the palate of wines available is a good thing: offering more choice for the consumer, tools for the sommeliers, highly drinkable reds to be served a bit chilled. Also, certain varieties clearly benefit from these techniques: Maccabeu lends itself brilliantly to skin contact, Pinot, Gamay and some other Loire varieties are super when made using whole bunch.

My personal 5 cents is that, like anything when it comes to wine, nothing is all bad or all good. I do think it is important that everyone working in the wine business maintains a healthy level of criticism whilst balancing this with an open mind and a ready glass.

Englishman Olly Bartlett works at the Swedish wine importer Wine Trade.

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Published 12-Nov-2018

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