What makes a great wine great? By understanding the processes involved with making a great wine, you’ll be able to identify a great wine based on your own tastes. It doesn’t matter if you’re a collector or a novice in the world of wine, a solid foundation provides the basis of how to find great quality (regardless of price). At Tipple and Dram, we have scoured the globe to bring the best wines to our humble wine bar at Ann Siang Hill, in Singapore.
“Making good wine is a skill, making fine wine is an art” -Robert Mondavi
Grapes and Winemaking: We can all agree that you need high quality ingredients and exceptional preparation skills to make outstanding wine.
Long-term Vision: There are many intriguing new wineries and winemakers, but the great ones have one thing in common: they think big. As soon as the winery’s founder considers that their winery may continue to exist after they’re gone, they think differently about how they develop their brand and, ultimately, how they make wine.
Art: There’s this undefinable x-factor to great wine that’s hard to quantify in a scientific manner. Art is also a very personal choice that really comes down to the eye of the beholder. Of course, the more educated you are at understanding the craft of art, the more sophisticated/nuanced your taste will become. Winemakers, like artists, follow different ideologies and these core competencies are indeed reflected in the wine.
Since art is a personal choice, we’ll focus on the quantifiable aspects (Grapes and Winemaking) and leave the fun part of seeking the art-side of wine for you to explore.
“You can make bad wine with great grapes, but you can’t make great wine with bad grapes.” -Robert Mondavi
When you simmer down all the many processes involved in growing great grapes, there are essentially two areas of consideration:
Terroir: Terroir is essentially mother nature’s influence on grape growing and includes the climate, soils and other aspects dealing with the natural world. The word “terroir” can mean many things to different wine experts so, for the sake of simplicity, we’ve defined terroir to reference a region’s climate, soils and flora.
People talk a lot about soils and climate when it comes to wine, but there’s a third component that scientists are now beginning to understand more: What really matters about a soil is how the fertility of the soils affect the vines throughout the growing season. There are 4 fundamental soil compositions based on particle size:
Clay: Known for producing rich, structured wines
Sand: Known for producing wines with higher aromatics and slightly lighter colour intensity
Silt: A harder to manage (viticulturally speaking) soil that can produce highly vigorous vines which deliver more herbaceous flavours, but when managed it can produce wines in a style very similar to clay.
Loam: Typically found in valley floors and is not typically associated with fine winemaking due to high productivity (unless blended with higher levels of clay/sand).
What’s interesting about the soil types listed above is that if you look at all the finest, most structured, age-worthy red wines, they almost all grow on clay-dominant soils (Rioja, Pomerol, Napa Valley, Paso Robles, Tuscany, Coonawarra, Burgundy). Beyond this, the most highly appreciated aromatic wines (like German Riesling and Beaujolais) grow in sandy/rocky soils.
Complexity in soils = complexity in wine When managed properly, vineyards with diverse soil types tend to produce wines with more complexity.
What is Flora? Flora includes all the living plants/fungi in a given area. This includes everything from trees, sagebrush, grasses, and flowers, all the way down to microbes like yeasts and bacteria.
“You can find 50,000 yeast particles on a single wine grape” -Carlo Mondavi
Vintage: This area involves the choices that humans make to facilitate grape growing throughout a single year/vintage (i.e. pruning, irrigation, soil treatments, pest management, harvest timing, etc). All the processes and preparations made throughout the year leading up to, and including, harvest define the job of viticulture or “wine growing.”
“great wine is grown, not made”
Climate: Climate not only includes what’s happening with weather on a grand regional scale, but also references small differences from place to place. There are really 3 levels of detail that can be observed with climate:
Macroclimate: Different grape varieties are suited for different macroclimates. Very simply, a macroclimate includes the average temperature and degree days (sun irradiance) of a region during the growing season. Certain grape varieties are better suited to certain climates (e.g. Pinot Gris in a cool climate or Sangiovese in a warm climate).
Mesoclimate: If you dial in a step deeper from the macroclimate, you’ll be able to notice subtleties between wines from different vineyards within a single region. Mesoclimate refers to climatic differences in an encompassing region such as distance to a river (where it may be cooler and foggy in the morning) or the location of a vineyard on an elevated slope.
Here are some basic questions that pertain to a vineyard’s mesoclimate:
Is the vineyard on a slope?
Is the vineyard in a valley?
Is the vineyard close to a large body of water (lake, ocean, river)?
Which direction does the vineyard face?
Microclimate: Finally, microclimate goes all the way down to the individual vine. Perhaps there is a part of a vineyard that is shady during certain parts of the day or there’s airflow in one part of the vineyard and not another. Microclimates are what influence a single vine to produce quality grapes.
Timing is the most important consideration for harvest. Once grapes are picked, they do not continue to ripen. In cooler regions, winemakers need to consider weather changes and pick before heavy rains. In warm climate regions, timing the harvest improperly (even by a few days) can mean the difference between a fresh and fruity wine and a flabby, overripe wine.
It’s important that sugar levels are high enough for harvest, but then there’s also phenolic ripeness. Phenolic ripeness pertains to the condition of the tannin in the seeds (catechin) and skins (epicatechin) of the grape. We talk about this style of ripeness often when describing a wine as having “sweet tannins.” Grapes with less ripe seeds and skins result in more astringency and bitterness in a wine.
Some grape varieties have lower tannin naturally and winemakers may pick them a little greener to add texture and acidity to a wine (this is commonly practiced with Pinot Noir). Other grape cultivars have high tannin (such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Nebbiolo) and are better to be picked when the phenolic ripeness in the seeds and skins is higher.
Wine Growing Practices
If you step back and look at a winery’s vineyard as a whole, you’ll see their growing practices are somewhere on the scale of sustainability. The very best wineries with long term vision are sustainable. And while most of us think of sustainability as an environmental consideration, it also involves social and economic aspects.
Even after the fermentation is complete, a wine continues to change as it ages.
After the grapes are harvested, the process of making wine begins. This is where the winemaker has several choices which can affect the resulting style of wine.
The first choice is perhaps the most important and least talked about: Yeast. Yeast adds its own set of flavours to wine. Yeast aromas are referred to as Secondary Aromas and can range from yeasty, beer-like aromas to buttermilk, and even earthiness (mushroom). While most wine is produced with commercially controlled and manufactured yeast, many of the finest wines in the world are made with natural yeast (from the region and winery’s natural flora). Natural yeast fermentations can be much more difficult to manage but, if the vineyards and winery have a healthy yeast population, the end result is a complexity in the wine.
Winemaking Processes: Punchdowns and Pumpovers
Grape skins rise to the surface of the fermentation chamber and a few techniques have been developed to reintegrate them into the wine.
The process of punch downs and pump overs is to reintegrate grape skins and seeds into the fermenting juice so that the proper levels of phenolic extraction can be achieved. This process is akin to stirring the grinds in your French press. Of course, different grape varieties need different levels of extraction to develop positive flavour characteristics (and not the bitter, astringent or sulphur-like aromas). Generally speaking, the Bordeaux varieties of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec and Petit Verdot do better with higher intensity extraction (e.g. pump overs) and lighter varieties (such as Pinot Noir, Syrah and GSM blends) do better with more delicate extraction.
Winemaking Processes: Fermentation Temperature
As yeasts eat the grape sugars and metabolize them into alcohol, the temperature of the fermentation increases. This increase in temperature causes volatile aromas to burn off and this isn’t necessarily a good thing. You can assume, for the most part, that red wines with more floral notes are often fermented at lower temperatures (flower aromas are usually the first to go), which means the winemaker was trying their best to preserve these volatile aromas in the fermentation. When temperatures get too high, wines will exhibit less fruit flavours and more earthy or baked flavours. And, while this is not necessarily a bad thing (a chocolaty Malbec anyone?), it suggests that not all the original aromas in the wine were preserved.
NOTE: You’ll note a few winemakers using whole clusters of grapes in their fermentation. The inclusions of stems will naturally decrease the temperature of the fermentation.
After the fermentation is complete, the winemaking still has a long way to go. The choice of aging vessel plays a crucial role in the development of a wine.
Tank: Stainless steel is meant to preserve the original flavours as much as possible. This style of settling is most commonly used for white wines where floral and herbal aromatics are of utmost importance.
Concrete: Concrete storage vessels may breathe more than stainless while still maintaining a cool temperature. Wines aged in concrete have a higher level of preserved fruit characteristics, while still seeing the benefits of oxygen ingress (for red wines, this can include softening bold tannins). Some believe that concrete adds a textural sensation of minerality, but this hasn’t yet been fully proven.
Oak: Oak aging not only increases oxygen interaction in the wine but, when barrels are new and toasted (“toasting” is essentially torching and caramelizing the inside of the barrel to create flavours), they add flavours too. The flavours created include vanilla, clove, smoke, sweet tobacco and cola and are caused by aroma compounds from the oak.
Aging: Reductive vs Oxidative
The choice of aging vessel is really where the winemaker makes a visionary/artistic choice about their wine. Some producers try to preserve the wine’s natural character as much as possible by using neutral (used) barrels which do not add oak flavours or by aging wines for extended periods of time to soften the wine’s characteristics (acidity, tannin, etc). The choices the winemaker makes during aging, might be the best place to start when developing your own preferences.
Fining and Filtering
Another choice in the winemaking process is whether or not wines are fined and filtered. Wines often have a little bit of a hazy colour due to dissolved amino acids in the wine. Fining agents bind to these proteins and they drop out of the wine, leaving it clear. By the way, most fining agents are a protein of some kind (casein from milk, egg whites, fish bladders, etc). Nearly all white, rosé and sparkling wines are fined/filtered in some way but not all red wines. Filtering essentially does the same process of fining but with filters that have microscopic holes.
Proponents argue that fining/filtering clarifies and stabilizes wines and opponents believe that by not filtering their wines they provide them with added texture and structural elements for age-worthiness. The main issue with unfined and unfiltered wines is that consumers do not like cloudiness in their wines, particularly in white, rosé and sparkling wines.
When it comes to bottling, many believe that wines with screw cap closures are not as high quality as wines enclosed with corks. This isn’t true. Many high-end producers choose natural corks, but there are many turning to screw caps as a more reliable method (screw caps do not cause cork taint). In fact, low quality agglomerated corks tend to be more problematic than screw caps. Our one takeaway is that both methods are suitable for fine wine making.
At Tipple and Dram, the wine bar at 24 Ann Siang Road, we like to only store good wines. We do regular wine tasting events and provide retail and wine barkeep services in Singapore.