How high-tech, intervention winemaking can actually boost wine quality.
Advocates of low-intervention winemaking posit a wine should be an expression of all the good things happening in the vineyard. But the effects of climate change (fires, severe floods, vicious hail storms and droughts) has made what’s happening in the vineyard—in some regions, in some vintages—really, really bad.
“When I got serious about making wines in Texas, I knew I’d have my work cut out for me, considering the region’s short and intense growing season and the disease pressure,” says owner, founder and co-winemaker of Comfort, TX’s Bending Branch, Robert Young, M.D. “When you have a shorter growing season, the grape will mature completely in terms of sugar levels and Brix, but they’re not phenologically mature. Their tannins, color and flavor compounds can’t fully develop.”
Upon researching the issue, Young found French studies proving cryo-maceration and flash détente could help solve his problems—without affecting grape equality.”
These technologies, when used, are not something most brands will mention to consumers, especially as low-intervention winemaking continues to rise in critical and popular estimation. But there are winemakers, like young, willing to explain why and how they utilize one or both of these technologies.
Improve Color, Flavor, and Tannin
In Texas, the short—but dramatic—wave of heat during the summer season can result in red wines that don’t have varietally true color, heft, or flavor, Young explains. Anticipating this issue, he began experimenting with cryo-maceration early on.
The method isn’t manipulating the grapes as much as “getting more out of them than you normally would,” Young explains. The process simply involves placing freshly harvested, destemmed grapes into a powerful, commercial-grade freezer in order to rapidly chill the grapes. Once defrosted, the subsequent fermentation is said to enhance the extraction process.
As a retired medical doctor, he approached documenting his experiments with great rigor.
“Over five years, we compared our findings to what I’d read about,” says Young. “In France, their experiments demonstrated a 50 percent increase in tannins, pigment, and flavor.” When he compared two of his own lots—one fermented traditionally, the other using cryo-maceration—they showed 30 to 60 percent more extraction.
Young adds, with pride, that his first experiment with it—a 2011 Estate Tannat—was awarded Double Gold, Texas Class Champion, Class Champion, and was named Top Texas Wine at the 2014 Houston Rodeo Uncorked! International Wine Competition.
A few years later, Young began experimenting with flash détente—a thermovinification technology that heat-treats freshly harvested grapes at high temperatures (about 185°F) for a few minutes, then immediately cools them down. He found the process dealt with another host of issues.
“It completely removes the pyrazines found in Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, which can produce unwanted green pepper flavors,” Young says. “It also gets rid of what some people call “airroir,” instead of terroir. It’s a negative association with the taste of grapes grown close to busy roads.”
Combat Disease Pressure
“Flash deténte benefits flavors and enhances color for sure,” says Lee Lutes, winemaker at Black Star Farms in the Leelanau Peninsula, Michigan, with about 25,000 cases in annual production. “We like the way it works with almost all red varieties, except with delicate ones like Merlot and Pinot Noir. We’ve also found that it almost completely eliminates some of that funky flavor associated with hybrid reds and whites.”
Growing grapes in the perimeter of Lake Michigan requires an openness to hybrid grapes—and the acknowledgement of adverse weather.
“We have really bad years, and the choice is either let $100,000 worth of grapes go to waste, or flash them,” Lutes says. “We don’t use it every year on every grape, but we see it as an essential tool. We’ve also found that it can eliminate disease in grapes.”
This year, Lutes experienced 10 days of straight rain during the harvest season. “That would doom the harvest if we weren’t able to remove mildew with flash détente,” he comments
Flash détente machines are expensive, with most priced in the low six-figures. So Lutes applied for a grant from the State of Michigan. “They approved it in 2017 and we split the cost fifty-fifty. Part of the contract was providing other growers and vintners with free access to it for the first few years. Now, I still have about six to ten people every year contracting with me to use it. It’s cool to see how it’s helping the entire community make better wine.”
Boost in Local Business
Flash détente and cryo-maceration have gone unabashedly mainstream in Hill Country. At Bending Branch, Young has become a tireless advocate of both techniques. His labels provide information on which process was used—people come into the tasting room specifically asking for the “cryo-and-flash Petite Sirah,” or the “flash Tempranillo. “
For some, the end taste will never justify the means.
Lutes believes that “terroir purists will always see these techniques as voodoo.” “But for me and for my customers, my work is about supporting a local economy. Making the best possible product we can from the land here.”
Kathleen Willcox writes about wine, food and culture from her home in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. She is keenly interested in sustainability issues, and the business of making ethical drinks and food. Her work appears regularly in Wine Searcher, Wine Enthusiast, Liquor.com and many other publications. Kathleen also co-authored a book called Hudson Valley Wine: A History of Taste & Terroir, which was published in 2017. Follow her wine explorations on Instagram at @kathleenwillcox