Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Unsustainable Lightness of Tannins

This time Carlo Macchi takes the stand:

About two grams! This is the weight of the polyphenols (i.e. tannins and anthocyanins in a liter of red wine, to be precise a liter of Cabernet Sauvignon from Coonawarra). This minimal amount was measured via a system presented by Peter Godden (Head of the Australian Wine Research Institute) at the meeting on polyphenols and wine held in Montespertoli on Tuesday May 29.

In these two grams, this apparently minimal amount (by comparison, a liter of wine will contain between 850 and 900 grams of water), are concentrated the efforts of researchers and winemakers across the globe. The well-organized Montespertoli meeting, rightly called for by ISVEA with the assistance of Vinidea, was attended by people from Australia, France, Spain, and of course Italy.

And let's return to our weighty two grams of tannins and anthocyanins, a tiny volume that makes the difference between a quaffing wine and a great red worthy of long aging.

It made me smile to hear every speaker begin by saying, "We don't know much about tannins and anthocyanins," and then reel off figures and facts that show much more is now known than was a few years ago.

I am certainly not capable of explaining the technical aspects of tannins, nor do I want to bore you with reams of words: I will therefore use examples to try to explain what's new in the "Wonderful world of Polyphenols."

Think of the foundations of the skyscraper that is wine: this foundation is made up of blocks of varying sizes. We know the external measurements of the foundations, but not those of the blocks. The present studies aim to disassemble the foundation, take each block, measure it, see what kind of stone it is, and then use it in the reconstruction of the skyscraper that is wine, or better yet a number of different skyscrapers that are wine, each suited to a different set of circumstances.

Exiting the metaphor, we now know many things about tannins and anthocyanins as a group, but do not know them individually and do not yet know if approaching them in one way as opposed to another is correct or wrong. Indeed (and I know I'm being obvious), Merlot differs from Nebbiolo, which differs from Barbera, and it from Monastrell, and it from Pinot Noir, and it from Cabernet Sauvignon, and it from Syrah: each exhibits differing concentrations of tannins and anthocyanins. In addition, the various varietals grow in differing terroirs, climates, and are pruned differently, and this increases the differences.

Even if the grapes naturally contain our "two grams of glory," their presence, even in larger quantities, does not automatically mean they will find their way into the wine without creating problems. One of the major problems with tannins and anthocyanins is in fact their solubility, in other words how to get them from the skins to the wine without loosing them along the way. Because huge amounts are lost on the way!

The state of the art is  that of being able to identify and measure them (according to Hélène Fulcrand, Stefano Ferrari and Peter Godden). The next step is to find the best way to get the polyphenols to ripen fully at the same rate as the grapes, notes Professor Palliotti, and then, say Encarnación Gomez-Plaza and Antonella Bosso, to convey them "without loss" and in stable form to the wine. Despite advances in each of these phases, we have much more to discover. In short, we've discovered Shangri La, but it must be explored and to do so we'll need many things: measuring equipment, data classification, field tests and experiments.
As the meeting continued, with talk after talk being optimistic about the future, I felt sadly happy.

Happy because I understood (despite my abysmal grades in Chemistry) that Science was on the right track, and will soon be able to help provide better wines for everyone.

Sadly because with all these measurements, tests, and retests, the old incorrigible wine bohemian in me began to fell that we may never really understand the true nature of polyphenols, that spark that causes them to form and transforms them from something commonplace into something great and perhaps unique, the foundation of absolute quality. In other words, we may never completely understand the essence of a great wine. We may never understand why a given wine is great despite being made other than the textbook way. Faced with important people (in addition to those already mentioned, Patrick Vuchot, Giuseppe Arfelli, and Michel Jourdes), and intelligent presentations and discussions of experiences, I thought, with a sad smile, that they mystery of a great wine (Alas? Fortunately?) may never be revealed.

Published Simultaneously by IGP, I Giovani Promettenti.

We Are:
Carlo Macchi
Kyle Phillips
Luciano Pignataro
Roberto Giuliani
Stefano Tesi

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