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C6 H12 O6 + Yeast = 2C2 H5 OH + 2 CO2
Well, there we have it, winemaking in a nutshell. From Corney & Barrow House Red to Pétrus, Pingus to Salon, it's all here in this short chemical formula.
Sugar in grapes reacts with yeast enzymes to produce alcohol and carbon dioxide and, essentially, it is as simple as that. Prevent the carbon dioxide gas from escaping, under pressure, and you have the basis for sparkling wine and, in its purest form, Champagne. The equation ostensibly says it all yet it reveals absolutely nothing of the complexity of the process. One might as well try to understand a piece of music by looking at printed scales.
The first formula obscures all of the elements which we deem to be particularly important in producing quality grapes: suitable grape variety, rootstock, clone, terroir, plant husbandry, climate, meso-climate, care during harvest and in transporting the grapes to the cellar. We at Corney & Barrow tend to be more interested in this side of the equation since quality wine can only be produced from quality ingredients. Once the harvest is brought in, it is the cellar master's responsibility to manage the equation, translating his ingredients honestly.
One area in modern winemaking which gives us concern is when the process from the delivery of grapes to finished wines assumes the greater importance and winemaking takes the upper hand. Modern technology is a great servant, saving many a vintage from what would have been disaster in the past, but it makes a bad master.
Quite apart from the technology available, winemakers also have a large armoury with which to manipulate their wines. Therein lies the rub. We can argue that quality ingredients are key and that they should be allowed to express themselves, without too much intervention, yet a degree of manipulation is not only acceptable but, arguably, essential. Thus sulphur dioxide is accepted as a norm, ensuring a healthy, stable result. Likewise, judicious use of oak contributes a degree of richness, texture and complexity in the finished wine.
There are people who demand absolute purity but, essentially, a winemaker has to balance honest, unadulterated expressions of terroir with producing beautifully balanced, stable wines, which pleases the consumer. Integrity, honesty and talent are key to this balance.