This piece originally appeared in the September 2017 issue of Wine Business Monthly
Winemakers constantly debate the balance between art and technology. This is more than just the difference between Old World and New World wine production - it’s a fundamental question that every winery needs to address.
I remember visiting local wine fairs in France with my dad, tasting and buying wine by the case. He explained to me the concepts of “terroir” and “millesime”; how each plot of land could produce a distinct wine because of the ground composition, and how each year’s climate made a wine taste different. We would store those cases in our underground cellar and drink them as time passed, which might be weeks, months, or even years. I accepted it as fact that the same wine could taste better some years than others.
To my surprise when moving to the USA, I discovered an entirely different reality. In the ‘New World’, in wine like many consumer products, ‘brand’ is at the forefront, and consumers expect a consistent tasting experience year after year, and in any location. Someone drinking a Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay from 2010 would demand the same taste in 2016, regardless of the weather or the origins of the grapes. The majority of the consumer’s perspective in the USA is very straightforward: “I buy it, I taste it, I like it, I buy it again, I like it, I buy it again....” Most consumers drink these wines within hours or days of purchase, so they count on a predictable flavor.
And winemakers rely on various techniques to control the variables and meet this consumer demand for consistency of quality. It is undeniable that technology has an important part to play in today’s business of winemaking. Throughout the winemaking process, many decisions are made, which each require some risk or innovation.
In the vineyard, do we harvest our own grapes to control quality or source them from different regions in order to work with different profiles?
During fermentation what strains of yeasts, bacteria and enzymes do we use, or how much adjustment to pH and alcohol is advisable? How about decisions regarding saignee, skin contact, pump-overs, micro-oxygenation?
During blending, should different varietals be mixed from within the winery estate or from wines purchased on the bulk market?
During aging, use oak barrels with various toast profiles and origines, or replicate the maturation process with oak alternatives and using micro-oxygenation. How about de-alcoholization?
The appetite for technology adoption in any given winery reflects, at the macro level, that country’s culture and its (old vs new world) approach by producers and consumers. On the micro level, the willingness to innovate reflects the brand and culture of each individual winery. Some wineries trade on being cutting edge and challenging the status quo, while others position themselves as artisanal brands and offer a consumer experience to match this.
There is no right or wrong answer - each winery has to understand its own brand positioning and product strategy. My many years on the road working with wineries of all sizes showed me that these choices reflect the winery’s organizational structure, employee profile and team culture (personality, values and internal hierarchy), investment in winemaking tools, website content, the color of the label, the weight of the bottle, the use of a specific closure, etc.
In the end, the challenge for winemakers, and wineries as a whole, is to remain true to their vision without missing opportunities to innovate. I believe no winery can afford to remain fully artisanal; if the taste profile can vary from year to year, the overall quality of the wine has to remain constant in order to maintain success in a market where the spots on the shelves are highly prized. Some wineries remain partially artisanal in the winemaking process and message but offer a sophisticated customer experience supported by technology, like an online wine club and social media communications.
Whether organizations decide to embrace or resist change, the fact is that the democratization of technology is happening in front of us. When my kids’ PlayStation has more computing power than the early moon launches, we are only a couple of years away from talking to our fridge and having it tell us what to cook - or having our winemaking tank talking to us ...
The point is that democratized technology is cheaper and more accessible for a business of any size. Winery owners, winemakers and wine marketers must now decide their positioning on technology and innovation.
Where do you stand...:
To make an informed choice on technology, winemakers need to:
The point for wineries to note is that their options to apply technology to a range of uses - both winemaking and general business - have really opened up in a short amount of time, all participants should be aware of this, and should decide where they stand.
A great article by Grape Grower and Winemaker on what makes the Wine Grenade so unique and such an exciting product for 21st Century winemakers.
Read "The Bomb for Micro-Oxygenation."
The hype continues to build around Wine Grenade. We've been featured heavily in Wine & Viticulture's latest issue with a focus on micro-oxygenation and on new innovations in the winery.
See below a photocopy of one article from the print magazine.
By Cyril Derreumaux
A winemaker’s job is to make good wine, consistently, year after year. Easier said than done, right? This being said, any winemaker will tell you that it is also about making decisions for the short, medium and long term, but also in resolving unexpected problems, especially during harvest. ;)
This month’s blog covers the various choices available to winemakers regarding wine aging tools and strategies, in order to maximize efficiency and minimize problem solving.
How can the winemaker decide between these choices in order to make the best wine possible with a given budget and target retail price? Regarding the maturation phase, he might decide to go traditional and do 100% barrel aging. Or a mix of barrels and stainless-steel tank with oak alternatives and mox, or oxygen permeable plastic polymer tank with oak staves. The decision will be based on several factors and criteria: the financial priorities of the wineries, brand positioning, sourcing of the grapes, time to market, etc…
Any conversation regarding oxygen delivery systems involved in wine aging cannot be a simple comparison of coopers against coopers, micro-oxygenation suppliers against each other, or a binary opposition between barrels and micro-ox. The conversation should include ALL means of delivering oxygen while maturing wine: barrels, including large wooden vessels/tanks, micro-ox delivery units, permeable tanks made of complex polymers, and even a the basic oxygen tank cylinder with a manual valve, a hose and a sparging stone…
To give you a hand, below are some tips on how to segment wine maturation solutions in order to decide which best suits your needs:
Many different factors will impact a winemaker’s decision to invest in new equipment for their winery. Obviously, the benefits of any investment need to outweigh the costs.
At Wine Grenade we’ve built our business around allowing the winemaker to achieve all of the following:
To summarize, here is how the Wine Grenade is positioned along those parameters mentioned above:
We love talking about this stuff, so get in touch, and we'll see if Wine Grenade can help improve your winemaking operation.
Cyril Derreumaux - firstname.lastname@example.org
Vodafone has recognised the potential for Wine Grenade to disrupt the wine maturation industry with internet connected devices by offering a place in the 2017 Vodafone Xone program.
Read the full story on the NBR website.
Wine Grenade’s versatile and highly portable technology can be used on wines from around the globe, so it didn’t take much time for our team to start working on adding South America to our distribution network.
So in May, Cyril packed up his bags and headed South from his California base to meet distributors in Argentina and Chile, the ninth and seventh largest winemaking producing countries in the world respectively.
Home of many red varieties, and in particular their signature varietals that are Malbec for Argentina and Carmenere for Chile, the two markets share many similarities but are also remarkably different.
Argentina has an international reputation for great quality wine produced at large scale however has suffered massively in tumultuous economic times. However, as Forbes reports, there are strong signs Argentina is ready is ready for a comeback to the international stage. A new government has removed the import/export tariffs that crippled the trade economy for the last five years, and winemakers are beginning to look externally again rather than focus on the domestic market.
Cyril lived for over a year in Mendoza and capitalised on his industry contacts to meet potential distributors. He also presented Wine Grenade directly to local winemakers, receiving positive feedback.
Chile has steadily emerged as a global wine force. Considered as “new world” as its neighbour Argentina, Chile’s favourable growing conditions and now stable economic climate has enabled it to become the 4th largest exporter of wine into the United States (after France, Italy and Australia). With a length of over 4,000 km from North to South, Chile offers a broad spectrum of wine varietals. Names such as the valleys of Casablanca, Maipo, Colchagua and Curico might all sound familiar, and if not - try them!
The South American exploration builds on our experience creating distributor partnerships in the USA, Canada and Mexico. Our expansion strategy is based on gaining scale through trusted local partners and as a business we are building knowledge about how to create sustainable, profitable partnerships.
Overall, the trip was highly efficient in identifying potential partners and the feedback on our technology raised a lot of interests so we can definitely say that we will certainly we having several wine grenade aging Chilean and Argentinian wines in the near future!
In the early 1990’s Patrick Ducournau started to develop the winemaking technique we now know as “Micro-Oxygenation”. Working with the Tannat Varietal in the Madiran region in South West France, he was trying to create a new winemaking tool to help soften the tannins of his wines during elevage, or wine aging. Experimental by nature, Ducournau developed the technique from scratch and he and his team were instrumental in its proper implementation and development.
Now well established among old and new world wineries, benefits of micro-ox include improved mouthfeel (body and texture), enhanced color stability, increased oxidative stability, and decreased vegetative aroma.
For those not familiar with micro-ox, I usually start with the metaphor of a fire: Fire must have just the right amount of oxygen to thrive. Too little and the fire dies. Too much – and the fire dies. Same for wine maturation. Same for us human too by the way… Isn’t ageing a slow oxidation of our cells?
As an aside, my passion is ultra-endurance rowing so I understand all too well the importance of oxygen, surely the most underrated fuel for our body. We can live without eating for months, we can live without drinking for days, but we can’t live without oxygen for more than a few minutes. Okay, revenons a nos moutons (let’s come back to our sheep), like we say in France…
Ducournau’s technique was initially thought quite radical because oxygen in wine has long been considered as an enemy, something you didn’t want to mess with for fear of oxidation... To reassure his clients, Ducournau invented the term micro-ox, explaining that only micro-amounts of oxygen is introduced, using specific diffusers sparging tiny micro-bubbles. It’s not oxygenation he said, it’s micro-oxygenation!
Oxygen can be introduced at several moments in the winemaking process. It can be used during fermentation, in order to “feed” the yeasts; during phase 1 (or the Structuration phase), which is the period between AF and ML; or during phase 2 (aka the Harmonization phase). The rates of oxygen addition between phase 1 and phase 2 are a 10x ratio. For instance, if you can go up to 35mg/l/m in phase one, your wine would probably be okay to start with a rate of 3.5mg/l/m in phase 2. Phase 2 is what naturally occurs in barrel aging, with low amounts of oxygen intake occurring through the staves and through the bung.
The key to successful micro-ox is to stay within the wine’s ability to consume oxygen faster than the rate at which it is added to the wine. An innovation that I’m so excited by, I now work for, is The Wine Grenade, a hand held device which releases oxygen through a permeable membrane at a molecular level, rather than the ‘fish tank’ style bubbling technology of diffusers. This membrane-based or ‘nano-oxygenation’ process does not create bubbles and more closely replicates traditional barrel aging in tanks.
So, from micro-ox to nano-ox, the future is here.
There is a French expression that goes like this: “Il faut donner du temps au temps”. A literal translation would be “you must give time to time”, or “allow time to time”. Essentially it means that some things cannot be hurried, and sufficient time must be given to ensure its creation or implementation.
In a world of instantly expected gratification, unlimited availability, worldwide share-ability and obliged likeability, we must learn to slow down and re-learn the art of giving time to time.
You cannot learn a language, master a musical instrument, repair a broken bone or cook a pie faster than the time it naturally requires.
I believe it is the same for wine. Technology and innovation, both in viticulture and winemaking, undeniably help the vine grower and the winemaker control most parameters of the art of making wine. Consistency in the wine profile is thus achieved more often than not. That being said, we must be careful not to take shortcuts and go “plus vite que la musique”, another French expression meaning you can’t go faster than the pace of music….
This is true also for wine ageing, or as French people call it “Élevage”, which is defined as the progression of wine between fermentation and bottling. Comparable to the term "raising" in English; think of élevage as a wine's adolescence or education”.
A winemaker must choose to mature their wine in barrels or tanks. The commercial reality is that not all wine can be matured the traditional way in oak barrels; about 90% of wine is matured in steel tanks. Barrel aging is essentially an “automatic” aging device as it balances naturally all the five parameters in the aging process: 1. Oxygen, 2. Oak compounds, 3. Turbidity (contact with the lees), 4. Temperature and 5. Time.
Micro-oxygenation was developed to reproduce the “oxygen” parameter in wine ageing. The technology is built on the premise that a tank can “behave” just like a barrel if we are authentic about how we recreate the important processes that happen in oak maturation.
At Wine Grenade, our goal is to improve the quality of wine when made at scale inside steel tanks. We aim to address the oxygen component of wine ageing by using a permeable membrane rather than a diffusor, meaning the oxygen is absorbed at a molecular level rather than through bubbles.
People ask me if wine can be aged faster by simply adding more oxygen than what a barrel would naturally allow. The answer is ‘probably yes’, but to my mind that’s taking a shortcut. We prefer to reproduce the natural condition of a proper ageing, and let the wine get ready as it should.
Like my mom would say…. “Sure you can cook faster a “coq-au-vin”, “a boeuf-bourguignon”, or a “cassoulet” by increasing the heat source, but you won’t get a good one!”
“Give time to time, son”…
By Cyril Derreumaux
About Wine Grenade
Wine Grenade is wine maturation, redefined. This blog will keep you up to date with our business and provide some thoughtful commentary on the art of winemaking.