what is more difficult – making red wine or white?

Friday, April 20, 2012

In this country, and in most of the winemaking regions of the world, wineries and winemakers will have a predilection for either white wine or reds. Sometimes it’s based on terroir. Certain sites do better with one type of grape or another. But here in Washington especially, many if not most winemakers cast their grape nets (not a breakfast cereal!) in as wide a swath as possible. They can choose to make any type of wine they wish. And most often, they choose to make both red and white.

However, they usually don’t do both equally well.

There are wineries whose strength is white wines. They manage to produce fragrant, textural, racy, natural, expressive, fruit and terroir-driven white wines with excellent varietal character. But the reds may be oaky, syrupy, heavily-laden with coffee and vanilla flavors; in a word, clumsy.

Then there are winemakers whose reds are silky, complex, laced with highlights of earth and fungus and mineral, whose tannin management and use of barrels for seasoning and amplifying the fruit is superb. But their white wines may be simple, clumsy, disjointed, or flawed in some way.

Yes, I am generalizing, perhaps overstating the situation to make a point, or at least ask a question. The question is “which is more difficult?” White wines require finesse, a delicate touch with the fermenter, perhaps some risk taking, and more and more experimentation with native yeasts, concrete eggs, dry ice, special filters, etc. in order to keep them clean and fragrant. Red wines, I am often told, are more forgiving. There are more options to “fix” a problem, or at least disguise it, with barrel aging and careful blending.

Winemakers, please weigh in. Any truth to any of this? What is your winemaking preference? What is the most difficult wine you make, and why? What wine would you like to make, but don’t dare try (amphorae wine?)?

Questions to chew on while enjoying a (hopefully) warm and sunny spring weekend!


Ed in Montana said...

One of the reasons that I keep going back to L'Ecole is that they do produce reds and whites in their lineup that are almost equally outstanding. It is fun to find out whether the reds or whites are better (in my wife or myself's view) in a particular vintage.

Not many wineries can offer that comparison.

Anonymous said...

I would also throw their next door neighbor, Woodward Canyon into the mix as well. Other than those 2 and DeLille I can really think of anyone else that does both well. Thanks for bringing up an interesting point I hadnt really thought about Paul.

B Hiebert said...

Excellence is always a welcomed by-product of hard work & attention to detail. Woodward & L'Ecole certainly prove the adage. But those two great wineries would never have lasted and thrived this long producing plonk. Digging deeper into perhaps lesser known wineries can unearth more winemakers crafting equally fine reds & whites...Kurt Schlicker of Rulo, in my opinion, sits at or near the top of that talented group.

Scott said...

Paul, I agree. Whites require more care including careful, controlled fermentation, management of oxygen during and after fermentation, heat and cold stabilization, fining and filtering. If a winemaker finishes a white wine in tank for example, and then decides to add a little of something else to the blend, he/she needs to re-stabilize the wine. There is also residual unwanted carbon dioxide to watch out for.

On the other hand, reds can accept oxygen during fermentation, can handle some oxygen during aging, don't require heat and cold stabilization and can be blended at almost any time. Fining and filtering are not required, depending on winemaker preference.

Mike Rupp said...

It's my belief that white wine making is more of a quantitative approach and red wine making is more qualitative.

White winemaking is more of a process that you look at numerical data along the way: is the fermentation temp dialed in so that the aromas are preserved? Is the protein stability achieved based on a certain level of bentonite?

Red wine making seems to be more of a stylistic approach since many of the outcomes of the approach aren't measured. Does a winemaker pump over? Punch down? If so, how many times / day? When does the winemaker press? Why? SInce an average winery isn't going to measure the phenolic content of a wine, most of the decision making is done by taste & experience. Obviously oak is the same. What type of oak to use? How old? How long? Lees management is another decision. Is the wine aged on the lees? Is it racked off soon after fermentation? My point is that while there are some data points to gather on red wine, most decisions are qualitative decisions.

Now, toss Chardonnay into the mix. It's a bit of both depending on the style.

Unknown said...

In order of Difficulty

Hardest to easiest:
<$10 per bottle Red
<$10 per bottle White
$10-20 per bottle White
$20+ per bottle White
$10-20 per bottle Red wine
$20 -40 per bottle Red
$40 + per bottle Red

Low end wines require SO much more coaxing, work and attention to detail.

Top end red wine is the easiest of all to make. Buy/Grow Amazing fruit - Call yourself the best winemaker on earth by not screwing it up.

PaulG said...

Interesting comments everyone - many thanks for sharing your expertise!

Anonymous said...

Whites are far more difficult for me. for me they are most often from a single vineyard, made in small quantizes. With reds you have time on your side and forgiveness with blending. With whites I am bottling in March/April following the vintage year. I think picking date has more of an influence with whites. Pick them too early and the wines are too light, pick them too late and they are too flabby. Whites show off flaw much more, not to mention me losing sleep wondering if my “dry” Riesling with a little RS has a rouge single cell of yeast get through the filter pads and decides to re-ferment on me. Talk about stressing out.

Daniel said...

A thought...
the best white wines in the world, as far as I'm concerned, come from places that don't make truly 'great' red wine (think Germany, Austria, Alto Adige etc.) or make very challenging and fickle reds (Burgundy, Loire).
Could it be that making great whites means to have to grow grapes in places that reds just aren't the focus?

PaulG said...

Daniel, I don't disagree, though exceptions are plentiful (Bordeaux, for example, makes superb reds and whites, as does Burgundy). Here in the NW, the challenge is to find the specific locations that match best to specific grape varieties. That work is ongoing, but has proven to be quite successful with both white and red wines.

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