Ficheing for information

by blog on February 23, 2018

We want information, information, information

–The Prisoner

There is no substitute for standing in a vineyard and shaking the clay from the soles of your shoes. To share the same space as the vines, to feel the heat or the breeze or maybe the heat of the breeze, to rub the dirt between your fingers and smell it, this is what animates the wine for you and gives the wherewithal for the story. Having one’s senses ravished and lavished by nature’s blandishments and communicating your love for a place and its wine is not always enough to melt the heart of the stonier-than-thou wine buyer. We live in an age of maximal information, where knowledge is power even if that knowledge is essentially meaningless. But information is also a kind of bulwark, the armour against being stumped by a difficult question, for example, and if you believe that wine is a puzzle to be unpicked, a kind of mosaic of causes and effects, then the information provided by a fairly detailed fiche technique will give you part of the picture.

As there is no one fiche template that rules them all, it is necessary to devise one that fits various requirements and winnows out the irrelevant material. Fundamentally, it should contain factual information, leavened with a bit of local history and a touch of credo, and include an all-purpose tasting note that can be freely cannibalised for a wine list. It should be preferably no more than a page to a view with information divided between viticulture/farming practice and vinification. One should start with location, location, location. One can’t talk about wine confidently until one has a clear idea where it fits into its country and region of origin before one gets to the niceties such as the exact location of the winery and vineyards.

Having one’s senses ravished and lavished by nature’s blandishments and communicating your love for a place and its wine is not always enough to melt the heart of the stonier-than-thou wine buyer.

After the general, the specifics. It is necessary to have a brief description of the topography and the macro-and-mesoclimate as they are the precursors for the local wine styles. Then we look even more closely at matters such as terroir, soil type, microclimate, altitude and exposition as these will impress themselves on the fabric of the wines themselves. The age of vines, the management of the vineyard (training, canopy work) and the nature of the farming. Organic and biodynamic viticulture is important to us; vignerons have so many different approaches and the vagaries of each vintage present so many new challenges that it is useful to have an idea of their methods in the vines.

Vinification sounds tedious, but the questions we are asked most often by our customers relate to technical aspects of winemaking. Information should include hand-versus-machine harvesting, size of yields, and selection of grapes, as these will combine to determine the final quality of the material that the winemaker will be working with. Thereafter the dozens of winemaking choices and interventions: stems/no stems, preferment maceration, settling/decantation, open/closed tanks, the nature of the yeasts (wild versus cultured), temperature control (versus ambient), the substance and shape of the vessel for fermentation, malo/non malo and all the numerous additions/subtractions through to the bottling. Wood ageing intrigues and exercises sommeliers greatly: the proportion of new to used oak, the length of maturation, the use of lees…

Then there are the numbers: abv, residual sugar (more significant in whites, sweet and sparkling wines), total acidity, ph, SO2 (free and total). Retailers increasingly will want to know about fining regimes and additions on behalf of vegetarian and vegan customers. Natural wine aficionados would prefer to be assured that the SO2 totals are lower than the limits set by organic and biodynamic regulatory bodies.

[Some Vignerons] feel that the process of information-gathering does not do justice to the more profound alchemical (dare one say) transformations between vine and bottle.

The final information would be a tasting note to indicate the style of the wine. These can be so generic as to be meaningless, or so specific as to be ridiculously personal. The note should be a precis of what the drinker might want to ask you – dry or off dry, light, medium, full, fresh, aromatic or mouthfilling and most important of all – an interesting and imaginative food recommendation (or a classic one).

For all this many vignerons do not care for being interrogated about their practices and motives. They feel that the process of information-gathering does not do justice to the more profound alchemical (dare one say) transformations between vine and bottle. For them it is never a numbers game, nor do they studiously – if ever – tick the winemakers’ boxes. Instead they work through intuition, responding to the needs of the wine. To have it reduced to a process on a fact-sheet is like saying the wine is a product that can be summarised in a pat formula. So when we read a fiche technique we should always understand that this is merely the thin outer shell of truth. And occasionally a vigneron might have made some of this up just to get us off his/her back!

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