The invention of a wine

Grapes drying for appassimento wines.

Silence.

Swirl. Smell. Sip. Slurp. Swish.

Silence.

Swish. Spit.

Scribble.

Silence.

These are the sounds that accompany the invention of a wine.

I was sitting in the Sensory Lab in the basement of Brock University’s Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute. Above us were laboratories, offices and classrooms like those you’d find in any university building. Down here, though, it felt more like we were in a refined tasting room adjoined to an elegant wine cellar – which we were.

Twelve panelists sat around an oval wooden table, rows of number-coded glasses lined up in front of them. In those glasses, a few ounces each of 10 experimental wines – wines so new to the world that this group’s first task was to develop a vocabulary to describe them.

Panelists tilted their glasses 45 degrees in front of a well-lit, white background to evaluate transparency, hue and meniscus.

A few swirls concentrated the volatile compounds that give each wine a unique bouquet.

Short, sharp sniffs.

And finally a mouthful – slurp and swirl.

“Get your money’s worth,” counseled principle researcher Gary Pickering.

Panelists jotted down words to describe their experience. Some referred to a “Flavour Wheel” that categorized some of the more common wine-tasting vocabulary – everything from almond to grass to rubber. Panelists were not limited to these 80 or so terms, though. The wheel was just to get things rolling.

“Twelve tasters will likely generate 150 to 200 terms,” said Pickering. “Then we look for commonality – if you detect boysenberry and I taste red berry, we might be talking about the same thing.” Ultimately, the team will find perhaps 20 words to describe each wine, evaluate the intensity of each element, and ultimately create a flavor profile that is as unique as a fingerprint. (Because these wines are brand new, this exercise will have to be repeated for several more seasons to complete the profiles.)

I was the non-expert in the room, but I knew something the tasters did not: these 10 wines were created through a process called “appassimento” in which ripe and nearly-ripe grapes are harvested and allowed to finish maturing off the vine (drying at the same time). The process, which has its roots in northern Italy, concentrates sugars and flavours, creating distinctive flavours that are new to Ontario.

Pre-ripe grape harvesting makes the process highly compatible with the province’s relatively short growing season, as well as the region’s increasingly volatile weather that can lead to devastating early cold snaps.

“This is an adaptation to both climate change and increased competition,” says Pickering. “Appassimento is a way to ripen some varieties that might not consistently ripen for us. It’s also a way to offer different flavour profiles for varieties that do. It can diversify the Ontario wine region’s offerings”

The 10 wines before us were dried five different ways: in barns, former tobacco kilns, drying chambers, local greenhouses, and in open fields. For each method, researchers dried grapes to two different sugar concentrations. (Tasters also had an 11th glass – a “control” wine that was not an appassimento.)

I was surprised to find that even my unrefined palate could detect great variety in the glasses before me. Some tasted sour and acidic, while others seemed to have hints of grass and spice.

For a more in-depth description, I turned to Len Crispino, the owner of The Foreign Affair winery. Crispino was the first commercial wine-maker to bring appassimento to Ontario, and a decade later remains one of only a handful who experiment with it.

“The process of drying takes the grapes through all sorts of metamorphoses,” Crispino said in an interview. “That creates a wine that has many layers of flavours. It’s a more full-bodied, much more complex wine.”

Crispino, who first became familiar with appassimento when he lived in Italy as Ontario’s chief trade representative there, is clear that his motivation for transplanting the process here was the wine, not the weather.

“I often hear people say it’s a great way of dealing with years when we have poor growing conditions, and the grapes don’t mature properly. To me that’s an anathema – that’s not why we do this,” he said. “We’re not interested in doing this to fix a weather problem. The innovative piece for us was to test the process with other grape varieties and other climatic conditions and see how we could create a new product for the Canadian marketplace.”

Crispino radiates pride about his winery’s philosophy, but recognizes that others may employ different approaches and philosophies. The value of a university getting involved is that they provide data that can benefit the industry as a whole. Some may want to speed the appassimento process for faster, cheaper production. Others may find boutique niches closer to that of The Foreign Affair.

“We are happy this research is going on,” Crispino said. “It enhances the industry. My hope is that it creates knowledge that helps whoever is interested in this process apply the research in the way that makes sense for them.”

Pickering echoed this sentiment when he described the value of having university and industry both devote their resources to this kind of research.

“A big aspect of our work is sharing knowledge for the benefit of the industry as a whole. We’re partnering with all kinds of organizations to advance the industry, make us more sustainable, improve our economic impact,” he said. “Our job is to do the research and transfer it back out to the partners.”

The university stays focused on knowledge creation and transfer, leaving it to industry to take the last step with the research:

Swirl. Smell. Sip. Slurp. Swish. Scribble.

Sell.

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