Postmodern winemaking, by Clark Smith

Published by Sally on August 16, 2013

Title of book: Postmodern winemaking
Author: Clark Smith
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 2013
ISBN 978-0-520-27519-5
Pages: 346
Price: £24.95 / US$34.95

 Clark Smith is both California winemaker and contracted professor at two USA universities, who, via a number of scientific and technical projects, has come full circle to wine as a product of art and soul.

The book is founded on a collation of Smith’s magazine columns, organised under section headings principles, practice, technology and philosophy. He does not readily define postmodern winemaking, but includes under its umbrella “micro-oxygenation, lees work and a sophisticated understanding of oak.” And, he says, it “calls apparent progress in modern oenology continually into question.” Finally, he adds postmodern winemaking “is not ‘hands off’” … it is “science in service to art.”

In essence, then, it’s using tools and kit and science to help make wine. Isn’t that just modern winemaking? Well, Smith’s thesis appears to be that these are used without loss of an artisanal wine’s soul. Using science and technology to accentuate local expression rather than to commoditise and standardise industrial-scale (soulless) production. He sums postmodern winemaking to be “the practical art of connecting the human soul to the soul of a place by rendering its grapes into liquid music.” Wow. He espouses the use of a lot of scientific kit to do so, if it’s needed.

Since the second world war, stainless steel, refrigeration, sterile filtration and the use of inert gases revolutionised modern winemaking. Smith goes beyond these basics in his pursuit of how to achieve soulful wines. In doing so, his book actually deals with scientific innovation and issues over the last half century, for example, oak, oxygen, brettanomyces, fermentation yeasts, terroir, tannin, minerality, reverse osmosis, ultrafiltration and flash détente.  Oxygen management gets quite a focus, with the seminal 1980s micro-oxygenation work of Madiran’s Patrick Ducournau being much lauded. Indeed Ducournau is postulated as the father of postmodern winemaking. The tannin polymerisation that requires careful oxygen management is cited as central to postmodern winemaking. All the technical stuff is great for the aspiring wine aficionado and wine student.

This is fun, thoughtful, and thought-provoking, all at an imminently accessible level and written in an appealingly pacy, energetic style, with innumerable quirky, everyday analogies. Though I would still hazard a guess it requires a reasonably solid base foundation of wine knowledge to appreciate fully. Indeed Smith states the audience of the original articles was the jobbing winemaker, with the book text adjusted for a less oenology-specific readership.

So, postmodern winemaking is “the new paradigm of winemaking that dominates the forefront of research and practice.” Or modern winemaking without the lowest-common-denominator characterless commoditisation, perhaps?

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