Winemaking Without The Juice

Roberto Viernes
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Wednesday - October 20, 2006
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Wow, that earthquake was pretty scary stuff! I hope you and yours fared well through it all. During the following blackout while eating dinner by candlelight with my family, I was reminded that not so long ago, there was no electricity. People lived their lives without any of the luxuries we see as necessities today, all possible because of electricity. Wine was made without all the modern-day equipment found in nearly all wineries today. No pumps, automated crushers or de-stemmers, no temperature-controlled vats, de-alcoholizers or concentrators. Everything was done by hand. It was a truly hand-crafted product.

Believe it or not, there are still some producers who do not use any electricity in making their wines. Yes, it is a throwback, and you would think that with all the technology available to these people they would update things in the cellar. But there are certain kinds of people who have been making wine for a long time and don’t believe they need to change it. And honestly, not everyone can get away with making wines like they did before the advent of technology.

The wines are most certainly different from what our palates are attuned to now. Perhaps they are not as consistent or fruity as we would expect, and they will not garner the three-digit ratings most people are looking for. But they certainly express each vintage vividly, be it great or modest. These wines, to me, also have a louder expression of the place they come from, or their terroir - it hasn’t been squeezed out to make a cleaner and more palatable version. It is there for all to taste. It tells you where it comes from. You can say you like it or not, but at least it’s honest, unlike some others.

One of the producers of whom I’m speaking is Domaine Noel Verset in Cornas. Cornas is located in the Northern Rhone Valley and is allowed only one grape in its wine, the noble Syrah. Noel Verset made his first vintage in 1942. Many of his vineyards are on some of the steepest slopes in the valley, which he still works mostly by himself. They are so steep that they have to be terraced in some areas and there is no possibility of automated harvesting.

Did I mention his vines are really old? Some are older than he is. His cellar is probably smaller than three Hummers combined. He uses no electricity in his winemaking. His vats are all made of oak (old), some as old as 50 years. He uses the old manual wine press, uses only old oak for maturing, and bottles the wine without any filtration.

Verset, small but vibrant, is now in his 80s and is slowly retiring, selling off his vineyards as he has no heirs interested in continuing the labor of love that he has endured. Last year he made less than 100 cases of wine. In my mind and my palate, his Cornas is one of the finest of wines because it speaks to me of Cornas and its place on the hill. It ages beautifully and although it’s never the “biggest” wine, it most often has the most to say in its complexity.

Verset is not the only vintner who doesn’t use electricity, although he is a rare breed. But to me he exemplifies the highest level that can be reached by people who are dedicated to making something great even without today’s technology.

Technology is not altogether bad or evil; it is indeed good in most cases. But it is pretty awesome to see that it is not the end all or be all of great wines. Some day, if there is no more electricity, fine wine will still be made.

No electricity needed: Noel Verset Cornas ($40-$50). You will see what I mean with one whiff. You are lucky if you find it.

Whitcraft Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays ($25-$50). Chris Whitcraft doesn’t use electricity either, but his wines are pure and electric. He has several bottlings of different vineyards, and they are all wonderfully expressive.

Roberto Viernes is a master sommelier. E-mail .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
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