I recently tagged along with some colleagues on some winery visits in Oregon's Willamette Valley. Such visits are a great opportunity for those of us charge with representing producers in the marketplace to get to know the people, stories, and ideology behind the wines a bit. The visits offered a great deal of insight into what each producer was aiming to do - and how well they had done in accomplishing their goals.
We tasted wines from both 2007 (mostly yet-to-be-blended components from barrel) and bottled wines from 2006. The contrast between the vintages were clearly striking - with deep, concentrated, fruit powered (and somewhat tight) wines in '06 and racier, acid driven wines with more elegance in '07. For those producers who are trying to achieve a classical European style, '07 may well be a terrific year.
Along the way our group heard over and over that, while much of the farming behind the wines was pure and often organic - a good amount of the cellar work was enhanced by manipulation. Let me be clear - in contrast to the many, many, many producers who add synthetic color additives and perform alcohol and acid extracting voodoo behind closed doors (and never reveal these activities publicly) - these practices are incredibly tame. More than a couple of times the notion came up of chaptilizing wines (adding sugar to pump up finished alcohol levels) in the low ripening 2007 vintage, as did the idea of using inoculating yeasts in lieu of allowing the grapes to ferment naturally with their own, native yeasts. In the case of one producer, the yeast he uses is cultivated from a wine produced by an icon in Burgundy - and it adds both a flavor and texture to the wine that would not have otherwise been there. And then, of course, there are those barrels, which can easily change a wine's entire character... but that's another story.
In the end, the fact that these producers are both open about what they are doing, and performing these activities in minimal doses, is something I can appreciate. But the next time you open a bottle, think about what is in there aside from naturally fermented grape juice - you might be surprised.