Monday, June 18, 2012

Artifice . . . whither the winemaker?

Artifice. It’s a word that I’m pretty sure was sparingly used a few years ago in wine writing. Now it’s seemingly everywhere. Every second wine writer or commentator is using it in reference to winemaking input. An example below from a winery’s website is the kind of comment that has become common place

“no more than the bare essentials of winemaking artifice and intervention.”

What’s the definition of artifice? From the Oxford dictionary, “clever or cunning devices or expedients, especially as used to trick or deceive others”. From the Cambridge dictionary “(the use of) a clever trick or something intended to deceive”. Not exactly flattering, so to my mind if you are discussing winemaking artifice it’s not really a positive comment on the wine or the winemakers efforts. Using artifice to describe winemaking that does indeed trick up a wine and perhaps make it appear more impressive (at least in the short-term) than it is in reality makes sense to me. The issue I have is that it has come to be used more and more to simply describe winemaking input. And while wine insiders might kind of understand what is being said, I’ve got no doubt that the average consumer understands artifice in its proper usage, and would be unlikely to view it as a positive description in a tasting note. Moreover, the inherent implication of using artifice to describe any kind of winemaking input, is that "natural" wines are the only truly authentic wines (being without artifice). This is pretty binary and to my mind an unhelpful view of wines and winemaking.

One wine writer wrote of a premium Margaret River Chardonnay “Lots of winemaking artifice involved here – needs time, but this should be fascinating to watch as it evolves”. This doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. A wine with a lot of artifice is unlikely to evolve well at all. I’m sure what this wine writer is actually referring to is fairly standard winemaking, in that this Margaret River Chardonnay sees a fair bit of new oak and undergoes partial malolactic fermentation. Well, to me this is more than legitimate winemaking input, not some attempt to trick up a wine. These are the same winemaking techniques that many of the greatest white Burgundies undergo. If it must be argued that this is indeed artifice, then a Chardonnay needs to be aged in a neutral stainless steel and undergo no malolactic to be regarded as without artifice (a sad, sad world if that is the definition of Chardonnay that isn’t tricked up).

While I understand the reaction to the very real artifice of many industrial Australian wines over the past couple of decades, it’s disappointing to see an overreaction that has the word bandied about and seemingly diminishes the entirely positive contribution of many passionate winemakers. Without wanting to define specifically what techniques are of artifice (everyone will have their own personal matrix), if someone states that a wine that goes through reverse osmosis to reduce alcohol, and then has some tannin chucked in, is a wine of artifice, then that to me would make some sense. But winemaking decisions about stems or no stems, how much new oak, lees stirring, levels of malolactic fermentation etc. are to my mind not winemaking artifice. To argue that they are, is to say there is something disingenuous about these inputs. For many winemakers, however, there’s not a hint of deception in any these decisions, but rather choices as to what will in their opinion produce great wine. They might bugger up one of these inputs and produce an unbalanced wine, but that’s another point entirely.

This may all be considered English language semantics on my part. Perhaps, but I think there are still plenty of wines out there that ought to be called out for their artifice, and that the affect of the term shouldn't be lessened by incorrectly applying it to all and sundry. To do so diminishes the efforts of many passionate winemakers endeavouring to make great wine.



Andrew said...

I like artifice and use it quite a bit. For mine it just doesn't carry the negative overtones though (perhaps that brands me as one of the insiders).

Red said...

Andrew, appreciate that you and many others don't mean it in a negative way, but I can't get past my understanding of the word and what it implies.

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