Does extended maceration obscure terroir?

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Does extended maceration, to the extent that occurs in many amphora or orange wines, obscure or trump site and grape variety? This was a really good question that I was asked by a good friend today. So I thought I’d draft some sort of answer.

First, let me state that I am a fan of many amphora, tinaja or qvevri wines, where the grapes are left to ferment on the skins for many months – both white and red. For white wines, you tend to get a lovely floral perfumed character coupled with interesting grippy tannic structure. For reds, the extended maceration does interesting things to the tannins. They tend to become smoother and silkier, rather than grippy and more aggressive. While I’m referring here specifically to amphora wines, you get a similar effect with extended skin contact wines whatever they are fermented in, it seems.

In part, the difference between skin contact whites and reds is because of the presence of anthocyanins in red wine ferments. These form interesting complexes with tannins that fix colour and also change the mouthfeel of the wines. White wines lack these anthocyanins, which explains the different, more grippy mouthfeel that the skin tannins in these wines possess. Post-ferment macerations are particularly interesting in terms of red wine mouthfeel. Of course, oxygen also has a role to play in this process. It would be interesting to compare the effects of oxygen in wines where there is no added sulfur dioxide and those where sulfur dioxide is present. This could show some interesting differences.

But let’s return to the main question. Does the flavour profile that comes from the winemaking process in these sorts of wines obscure the origin of the grapes? It’s a great question. To answer it, we must first ask: how do specific vineyard sites express themselves in terms of wine flavour?

I think we can only taste terroir by reference and comparison. Let’s take a wine region. Say, Bordeaux. We can highlight flavour characteristics of red and white wines made in Bordeaux, as compared with wines made with the same varieties in other regions. This is a regional terroir effect. We can then dial this down further to different appellations in Bordeaux. Not exactly, of course. But we can list certain flavour characteristics that might help us, when we taste a wine blind, to assign it to certain sub-appellations. Here we are thinking of a typical wine, picked at normal ripeness, and made in the classic way. We learn to associate certain flavours with specific places, because in most vintages the site expresses itself in recognizable ways if the winemaking is sensitive and avoids overpowering site differences.

Terroir speaks with a quiet voice. Interventionist winemaking is usually the problem. Pick too late, use too much new oak, extract too much and you will lose the site imprint. Usually, winemakers lose terroir because they are being evil, trying to make spoofy international wines. This is where extended maceration wines – in particular, amphora wines – are very interesting, because the intent of the winegrower is quite different. They would hate to make a points-chasing spoofy concoction devoid of terroir. But the problem is that the long maceration, while it makes very interesting wines (be they white or red) can obscure the terroir in the same way that the international style interventionist winemaking does.

I don’t think I can spot the regional source of extended maceration wines. Does this mean that orange wines, for example, or qvevri reds, are anti-terroir wines? To a degree, I have to admit they may be. Does this mean that they are non-authentic or illegitimate wines? No, I don’t think so.

You may accuse me of wanting to have my cake and eat it here. Is a wine authentic just because I say so? Am I making exceptions for these wines just because I like them?

Before you conclude this, I call to the stand Sherry. Sherry is a wine that tastes very much of the process by which it is made. The winemaking practices of the various Sherry styles impact its flavour in powerful ways. Does this negate terroir? I don’t think it does, at least for the biologically aged styles Fino, Palo Cortado and Amontillado. The vineyards here matter a great deal. Some sites are definitely better than others. I’m not sure I can make a direct link between the vineyards and the finished wines, but where the vineyard source makes a difference to the final wine, there we have a terroir influence. We then associate the flavours in the final wines to the vineyards, and with enough experience we can make this association even if we are tasting blind. This is the triumph of terroir.

So, for extended maceration wines? If the vineyard still makes a difference, then these are still terroir wines. The best, I hope, will show a closer connection with the vineyard. But I acknowledge that terroir expression is more abstract and complex in these sorts of wines where the winemaking process has a bigger impact on flavour. I would, of course, love to hear your thoughts on this.

9 comments to Does extended maceration obscure terroir?

  • Paul S

    If you start with a proposition that you can make great wine without it having to ‘show terroir’, then it doesn’t really matter if extended maceration changes terroir expression. The question is then one of quality against other criteria (flavour, aromatics, balance, length etc).

  • David B

    Thank you for your insights Jamie. I wonder if the issue with orange wines is that we do not yet have enough context. We have been drinking skin contact reds forever. Maybe 50 or 100 years from now there will be a better understanding or orange wines and how they reflect terroir.

  • Jerry McWine

    In response to David B’s comment, I would propose an exploration of the Republic of Georgia. I would expect, from my one visit there, that there are some old vintages of macerated white wines sleeping in cellars and monastery crypts somewhere…

  • Ben C

    Isn’t extended maceration simply another interventionist wine-making technique, just as over-oaking is, only one where you like the outcome?

  • Randy Caparoso

    Jamie, thanks for bringing up a question that has such an obvious answer, but is rarely proffered. Of course, any kind of winemaking measure that exerts significant sensory impact would, in effect, blur or obfuscate terroir expression which, as you remind us, speaks “quietly.” I love the way you think out loud about this.

    Needless to say, we all appreciate Champagne, Amarone, skin-contact oranges, and the many other wines dominated more by methodology than vineyard or regional origin. But what’s interesting is that wine from the best vineyards can still be highly expressive of origin despite elaborate lengths to “improve” upon them. You brought up skin contact. Premier grand crus Bordeaux and top Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon can absorb huge amounts of new oak plus undergo 30-plus days of post-fermentation skin contact (rounding out tannin, not increasing tannin sensation) still find ways of distinguishing themselves with sense of place. I can’t speak for winemakers, but I’m sure they think of it as like possessing beautiful pieces of art which are all the more enhanced by a handsome frame.

    For me it’s a matter of embracing and appreciating diversity, which can come from winemaking as much as vineyards, regions, choice of grapes or oak, and any other factor. An argument can be made that it’s wines reflecting synchronicity of multiple factors that may be the most exciting of all, while no doubt wines that are more focused on pure, naked, un-mucked up terroir will always be just as compelling. It’s all good.

  • I have the impression that winemakers creating orange wines take a step back from the notion of terroir to begin with and focus not only on the winemaking technique, but also on allowing varietal characteristics to come through. I was at a Italian wine tasting a couple of weeks ago and they had just added the wines of Damijan Podversic to their offering. The representative went on and on about the type of casks used for the maceration but when we asked him about the type of soil or the orientation of the vineyard, all we got was a blank stare.

    Of course, this is not necessarily good or bad, and talking to a couple of Italian winemakers is by no means a statistically satisfying sample, but I do believe that terroir representativeness is only one of several possible requirements for an ‘authentic’ wine, and that aspects like winemaking techniques or varietal expression are equally valid.

  • Antonio Morescalchi

    Truly compelling subject!!!
    Don’t you believe scale matters, in the Terroir concept? Are we talking Terroir on a regional scale or on a parcel scale? Both a region and a parcel can be Terroirs, as their product can be recognisable, and speak the language of origin. There are many regional Terroirs, and they are well distinguished, on their own scale. Port style wines are produced in many places around the world, but they taste different when produced outside Douro. The same can be said of Amarone style wines from outside of Valpollicella.Both Amarone and Port are Terroir wines, because they have a strong identity, and they cannot be reproduced no matter where. They are possibly not parcel Terroirs, because the process makes it difficult to recognise the vineyard of provenance on a scale of a few meters. We can call this case the case of a Macro Terroir, or a Regional Terroir, a Terroir where the difference is marked by the region of provenance, usually on the scale of the hundreds to thousands of Ha.
    Burgundy, on the other hand, where at times a few tens of meters marks a difference, a well established and acknowledged diversity, that specialists can recognise, and that wine lovers praise. The scale here is a few Ha, or less, sometimes. Burgundy is the Terroir “par excellence” the place that everybody regards as the birthplace of the concept in its purest form. A few other appellations around the world can show Terroir characters on the same scale, and many regions are slowly developing a similar concept. As in Burgundy, micro Terroir exists when a few meters of distance makes a difference. In this case I suspect that very little winemaking intervention is needed for this diversity to be preserved, as a heavy handed style gets in the way of the nuances. Think of Mosel, Langhe, Rhone, Tuscany: scale matters, and as winemaking intervention increases, parcel Terroir loses ground. Can Orange wine express Terroir? certainly on a regional scale, yet to be proven on a parcel scale, but I would not discard this possibility in principle. If all producers of, say, Oslavia would apply the same vinification, and use just Ribolla, would we tasters be able, with adequate training, to recognise the parcel of provenance? This answer, I believe, is not given yet.
    If each Terroir has his language that speaks of provenance, that language can be more or less articulated and nuanced, and can be further developed if a large enough number of producers want to follow a Terroir oriented policy.

  • Finn Robberstad

    I know a producer in Friuli who makes tow different long-maceration wines from white grapes (Ribolla Gialla) from the same vineyard, one vinified and matured amphorae and the other in untoasted oak vats. The main difference between the two wines is that the amphorae version has much smoother tannins. Several vineyard neighbors of this particular producer (in Oslavje/San Floriano) also make long-macerated Ribolla, using much the same methods in the vineyards and in the cellar (most of them learned from the one most pioneering of the group), and while the wines are all somewhat differently styled (reflecting choices by the single producers, and, I presume, different yeast strains in the different cellars – none of these producers would use selected yeasts), they all also strongly reflect their terroir. You will find similar mineral notes and other terroir reflections in wines made from different grapes in the same vineyards, and between the different producers.

    Another producer I know makes wines with extremely long maceration (reds from Barbera and Croatina, and whites from Malvasia) in the hills above Parma – going on to usually 90 days for the reds, and sometimes more than 6 months for the whites (but in untoasted wood, not in clay). All of his wines also have a strong terroir aspect; you will find analogous notes in quince growing in the same vineyards as in the wines.

    My conclusion is that long-macerated reds and whites in the hands of some vintners will have strong terroir expression, especially if they are autoctonous varieties.

  • I agree with the above comment by Finn.
    Perhaps the only way to test whether long maceration times would be to taste wines in countries where these wines are the rule and not an exception such as Georgia or FBG OR Slovenia and with winemakers who make a variety of them. I can think of a number of producers in Georgia who make wines from same grape, same style, same way wtc and the only difference is location of the grapes. An example is my friend Nika Bakhia of Nika wines. He uses only two grapes Saperavi and Rkatsteli and he bottles based on vineyards. I have tasted his two Rkatsteli made from various vintages side by side. Technique is the same. Wine made in Qvevri that are sourced from same clay and qvevri maker. He leaves everything in the qvevri after fermentation for 6 to 9 months. The two wines next to each other are completely different in acidity, mineraltiy, aromas and the terroir in each is very obvious. The problem
    In testing this theory is that there are so few places like this where to can taste wines made in the same way but from
    Different vineyards next to each other. The wines age differently as well.

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