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Jefford on Monday: Climbing Everest, With The OIV

I wasn’t in Izmir in June, but I will be in November. It’s Turkey’s year on the wine world’s sorting table. The world’s fourth largest grape-growing nation is preparing to host the European Wine Bloggers Conference between November 9th and 11th: fun, insight and controversy beckons.

More soberly, the same city hosted the OIV’s (in English, the International Organisation of Vine and Wine) 35th World Congress and 10th General Assembly between the 18th and 22nd June 2012, and the resumé of its resolutions was published a couple of weeks ago. No doubt the OIV delegates took a sniff at the three per cent of Turkish production which ends up as wine rather than dried fruit, as we wild, unruly bloggers will do in a month or two.

You may consider the resolutions adopted by intergovernmental organisations to be a perfect soporific – but you’d be wrong. The OIV shoulders a lot of the groundwork for what will eventually fetch up as wine law in your country and mine.  

Nor is it afraid to pursue big issues. Indeed, this year’s General Assembly tilted its compass at what will eventually prove to be the Everest of wine knowledge. Not only that, but it tackled an intriguing philosophical issue for wine. Other fascinating topics floated up too, such as how you can acidify wine without adding acid (by cation exchange – now approved under EU legislation), but let’s stick with the two big issues for now.

The philosophical issue concerned one of the most divisive topics in wine at present: alcohol levels. It’s become obvious over the last decade that you can create ‘wine’ at any level of alcohol you wish, by using a variety of techniques which begin in the vineyard (by manipulating yield, growing techniques and harvesting dates), may involve the addition of water, and end with cunning winery equipment, such as spinning cones, reverse osmosis machines, must concentrators and vacuum stills.  

When, though, does wine cease to be wine? “The fermented juice of the grape used as a beverage,” says, feebly enough, my edition of the Oxford English Dictionary – but what if the fermented juice has been early-picked, de-acidified, put through a reverse osmosis machine, then re-acidified (perhaps by cation exchange using an electromembrane), sweetened, water-adjusted and sterile filtered, to end up at 2.5% abv, 5% abv or 8% abv? Is it still wine?

The OIV resolution suggested a dividing line. Any wine which has been reduced in alcohol by up to 20 per cent of its original strength “in order to improve final balance levels” can still call itself ‘wine’ – provided that the end result remains within the stipulated parameters for the category in question. This would be regarded as an adjustment rather than ‘de-alcoholisation’.  

A reduction of beyond 20 per cent of original strength would be de-alcoholisation and the result could no longer be called ‘wine’ but must rather assume some other name, such as (in English) ‘low-alcohol grape-based product’. This is an area where legislators are struggling to keep up with scientists and consumers, so any clarity is welcome. The 20 per cent adjustment seems a generous one to me.

What about Everest? As someone who regularly writes about wine regions and attempts to explain their terroir to readers, it’s a source of frustration that there are no agreed standards about what the relevant parameters for terroir might be. French interlocutors will shower you with schematic geological sections and assume that they explain everything, while offering only the skimpiest climatic data and looking blankly at you if you request degree-day summations.  

Those summations are generally regarded as being the starting point for an approach to terroir in most newer wine-growing regions – but the ways in which they can be formulated, with or without a range of adjustments, are proliferating alarmingly. Some climatic phenomena (like rainfall and temperature) are easier to measure and quantify than others (like the various forms of light shading and the effects of wind patterns), yet until vines learn to talk we won’t really know what matters most to them.

Geological data is easy to present – but is it relevant? Vines mostly grow in soils, not bedrock – and soil classification is a highly technical subject, and its nomenclature is gibberish to most readers. And how do you measure and define different types of drainage?

Undaunted, the OIV has adopted what it calls ‘a vitiviniculture zoning methodology, on both a soil and climate level’, which it optimistically claims ‘includes the simple and necessary steps for obtaining good results’. Take a look at the PDF yourself if you like via the link on oiv.int (it’s the second ‘decision on viticulture’), but in my opinion it’s not even base camp.  

Nonetheless the intent is welcome, since the issue couldn’t be more significant. We will never make any sense of terroir, and by extension never be able to prospect wisely for new terroirs or maximize the potential of existing ones, without agreeing on what matters and how we measure it. That is Everest. All we have to do is climb it.  

Written by Andrew Jefford

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