IS A RED WINE so deeply-hued you can’t see beyond its surface inherently of better quality than one you can peer right into . . . or even through? Wine marketers are betting your answer is yes. They’ve been whispering this little bit of market research into the ears of winemakers for decades now. Long enough to convince them of its gospel truth. Today, almost all commercial red wines — regardless of grape variety or place of origin — are darker than they were 30 years ago. It’s conventional wisdom: opacity is preferable to transparency.
But these terms have another meaning. Wine whose sources and components are unknown or obscure may also be described as opaque; while wine whose origins are apparent, open to inspection, and clearly communicated can rightly be said to be transparent.
Transparency of this kind is a real virtue – something to strive for and applaud when we find it. We want government, business, and our personal relationships to be transparent, not opaque. In the same way that we’re concerned to know what medical school our doctor attended and whether the asparagus on our plate was organically farmed, we want to know where our wine came from and who made it.
The most transparent kind of wine was always the one you made ourself or bought from a neighbor, but we weren’t too far along in the history of winemaking before the pristine provenance that attached to local farm wine gave way to the dubious manipulations of professional wine brokers – those who bought young wine in bulk from the farmers who made it, raised and blended it with wines collected from other producers, then sold it in God knows what altered condition to inn and tavern keepers, the court, bourgeois householders.
In the same way that we want to know what medical school our doctor attended . . . we want to know where our wine came from and who made it.
Well into the 20th century, the wine trade displayed little aversion to doctoring wine in attempts to generate the deeper colors (elderberries were favored for this) and stronger alcohols (powerful supplementary wines from Sicily or North Africa did the trick here) its clientele craved. The consuming seemed not to care what mischief middlemen might be up to in their quayside cellars in Bordeaux, London, or Rotterdam, so long as the wine delivered to them was sound, flavorful, alcoholically potent, and labeled with a name they recognized – Medoc, Nuits-Saint-Georges, Sillery — even if the name misrepresented what was actually in the barrel. Transparency wasn’t an issue because it simply didn’t exist.
Bottles and corks had the potential to be a game changer when they began to appear in the late 17th century, but couldn’t by themselves do anything to remedy wine’s intractable opacity, since the costly process of bottling was a monopoly of the very same brokers whose operations were shrouded in secrecy. It wasn’t until the early to mid 20th century when French estates, out of concern for their own reputations and with the encouragement and example of Baron Philippe de Rothschild at Chateau Mouton-Rothschild began a shift to estate bottling that something like transparency became possible.
An estate-bottled wine is put securely into bottle and sealed before it leaves the property. Bottling at the source naturally renders the manipulation and adulteration I’ve described much more labor-intensive (adulteration would require opening and resealing every bottle) and therefore both less rewarding and less likely. Today, we recognize a wine that’s bottled on the property where it was grown and vinified either by noting the phrase estate bottled (the U.S.), mis en bouteille au château or mis en bouteille au domaine (France), Erzeugerabfüllung (Germany) imbottigliato all’origine (Italy) somewhere on the label.
Estate bottling brings a measure of transparency to wine by assuring that the wine you open is just as it was when it left the property where it was made. Bottling on site preserves the golden glow that’s always been associated with the winemaker who controls the entire process from growing grapes through maturation to bottling and labeling.
Wines made on an industrial scale can never be estate-bottled simply because no single property can produce enough grapes to feed the number of fermenters involved.
So, here’s another question for you. Can we assume that a wine bottled at its source is of inherently better quality than one that isn’t?
There are some good reasons for thinking this might be the case. For one, a winemaker concerned enough about his product to invest in a bottling line is likely to be a conscientious and fastidious fellow, just the sort to exert an exceptional amount of care in every aspect of his craft. But there are also reasons for thinking that a direct link between estate-bottling and better quality can’t be assumed.
Is a wine bottled at its source of inherently better quality than one that isn’t?
Specialization, for example. Many properties prefer to focus solely on viticulture, leaving the making of wine to others who are specialists in that enterprise. This is particularly true in California where the division between those who grow grapes and those who vinify them is particularly sharply drawn. There, as elsewhere in the world, a guy with no more equipment than a cellphone and a fax machine can make splendid, conscientious wine by purchasing high-quality grapes from specialist growers, having them vinified, bottled, and labeled at a custom crush facility, leaving him free to spend the bulk of his time on quality-assurance and marketing.
When such wines come with full disclosure of where the grapes were sourced and how the they were made — in other words, when the origins and constituent parts are apparent, readily visible, open to inspection — it’s hard to argue that there’s not transparency, even though they don’t qualify for an estate-bottled designation. Nor is there necessarily quality gap between a wine made this way and one harvested, vinified, and bottled at a single location.
Another somewhat less savory reason is that estate bottling really only relocates responsibility from a négociant to the grower-vintner. The assumption is that the latter will have more reason to act responsibly than than the former, but there’s no guarantee that the winemaker himself, given sufficient incentive, can’t make a bit of mischief on his own product.
Though generally taken as a mark of a certain level of quality, mis en bouteille au chateau or its equivalents are far from a guarantee of same. In the end, it isn’t what’s written on the bottle that matters; it’s the moral quality of the person who’s ultimately responsible for what’s in the bottle.
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