Winemaking is an ancient art.
Back more than 6,000 years ago, our ancestors nodded off one night after a hard day at whatever our ancestors did before cable television and the Internet, leaving a partially consumed dish of berries on the table, exposed to weather elements.
A few days later –– obviously, our ancestors were not the meticulous housekeepers we all fancy ourselves to be today –– they noted the fruit had released its juice into the bowl and that the liquid tasted different from the fruit they had consumed earlier in the week. This was puzzling because the juice tasted something like the fruit, but it had a bit of a “kick” to it.
What had been invented was wine. This lucky band of humanity’s first party animals experienced the natural process of the yeasts on the skins of the fruit attacking the sugars and delivering, to a happy tribe, the result: wine and alcohol.
Ever since this fortuitous accident of bad hygiene, which actually resulted in discovering a liquid that could fight infection and boredom at the same time, mankind –– and, of course, womankind –– has been seeking ways to make better wines, more interesting wines and the satisfaction of other personal oenological pursuits.
In so doing, we have discovered and created many great winemaking advances, but now comes a “return to yesteryear.”
France’s Château Smith Haut Lafitte has made a very retro-decision to deliver their wines to distant markets in a sailing ship. No need to reread that sentence. You got it right the first time.
The respected Grand Cru Bordeaux château, where grapes have been grown since the 1300s and where the Smith family, of Scottish heritage, has been making wine since 1832, are taking their shipping-to-market business with sailing vessels. It’s either an interesting way for a winery to reduce its carbon footprint or a terrific publicity stunt. Intriguing group of folks, these Bordelaise winemakers.
Château Smith Haut Lafitte, located south of the port city of Bordeaux on the Left Bank of the Garonne River, has arranged for the 106-year-old British ketch, Bessie Ellen, to haul 20,000 bottles of the château’s currently released wines from Bordeaux to Montreal.
The journey will cost the winery about 20 percent more than the industry-standard container shipping approach, with the extra cost allotted mostly to labor. The wines will require additional handling for loading and unloading, and there will be more time at sea. The journey will take 25 days, and it is the intention of the owners that this approach becomes a regular aspect in the château’s regimen.
But here’s the most interesting thing in this seemingly odd transportation solution: the wines themselves, it is hoped, will taste better earlier.
In the olden days (yes, even before I was around, which tells you right there we are way back in time), the wines of Bordeaux were, of course, routinely sent to market on sailing vessels. The Port of Bordeaux was a bustling mass of wooden ships and loads of sail canvas. Every shipment that left this port, to places as near as England and as far as Australia, traveled the long journey under sail. And it is said that the wines gained their reputations as among the finest in the world after being tossed about aboard sailing ships.
Château Smith Haut Lafitte hopes to duplicate that effect of the sea upon the wines. In tasting trials, all done blind with wines that had been exposed to the sea’s constant motion and air-quality conditions, wines that traveled in the modern tradition of containers aboard massive ships and wines that were sent to market via aircraft, tasters noted a distinct positive difference in those wines that traveled under sail.
These wines seem to age differently and result in a tendency to taste about a year older than their vintage. Given Bordeaux wine’s abilities for long aging, this attribute would mean the consumer would receive a more approachable product earlier in the wine’s life.
For those of you that don’t see why any of this could make a difference, consider:
1) One of the items about which fine wine collectors are always wary is bottle movement. When fine wines are moved, or even disturbed, some of the material in the bottle that has settled, known as dregs, once again is distributed through the wine, adding harshness and bitterness. But early in a wine’s life these elements do not impart the edges to the wines that will happen over a period of years. Instead, early on, they can add character and bouquets that enhance and define the character of the wine.
2) The purpose of stoppers, either screw-cap or corks, is not only to contain the liquid in the bottle but also to allow a certain amount of air exchange between the wine and the surrounding environment. Does it make it more interesting for the wine if the environment is sea-air as opposed to an air-conditioned sealed container?
The sailing-ship approach is an interesting one. It wins the let’s-keep-wine-romantic sweepstakes, with a pleasant image of wines resting comfortably in the hold and sails lofted overhead. It may also win the good-to-the-environment award by not burning fossil fuel for The Crossing.
Whatever, it can’t hurt, unless the winery determines to raise prices to even higher levels, for which Bordeaux is so famous.
Or unless you don’t like your wine with a touch of sea air –– in which case, me hearty, maybe walking the plank will be too good for you.
The Wine Show with Tim McNally can be heard every Sunday from noon to 2 p.m. on WIST-AM 690.