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.