Editor's note Descorchados 2021

Would you like coffee or tea?

Patricio Tapia

November 19.2020


Would you like coffee or tea?

It’s likely that the first time I heard the word, it was in a conversation with Dominik Huber in his house in Torroja del Priorat. I don’t remember what year it was exactly, but it certainly wasn’t that long ago. Huber is one of the people behind the Terroir al Limit wines, and the name is key if you want to take a look at the major transformation that the style of wines from Priorat have undergone in the past five years or so.

So it couldn’t have been more than five years ago that we had that conversation there on the terrace of his home in Torroja, with a few glasses on the table. That’s when, after having tried his Les Manyes, a garnacha from vines planted more than 50 years ago 800 meters above the town of Scala Dei (stairway to God), the word infusion first came up.

We weren’t drinking tea—herbal or otherwise—but rather that delightful garnacha, which, if not the best example of the variety in the world, it’s definitely among the top three, and it will certainly redefine your idea of Priorat in one fell swoop. With just one sip, you’ll forget about those slate soils and concentrate instead on the clay and chalk that are similar to Burgundy’s, but in the hills of Catalonia, precisely where that stairway to God leads. That’s not an image I just came up with, by the way. It comes from Carthusian monks 900 years ago, even though they were making distilled spirits rather than wine. But that’s a different story.

Infusion. That was the word that Huber used. He’s not a particularly friendly kind of guy, but one with firm convictions in referring to the way in which he makes his wines. Put the whole clusters into the fermentation tank, add a bit of manual labor, and that’s about it. Nothing new, if you think about it. It’s a technique that monks have been using in Burgundy for centuries. What is new, though, is the word infusion, and what it means in the modern world of wine, especially in the world of South American wine, which is what we’re here to talk about.

Let’s say there are two ways of making wine. One could be the infusion method. In other words, making wine as if it were tea—by letting the leaves steep and slowly transfer its colors and flavors to the water (the effect of the grape pulp on the juice). Then drain it, and you’re done.

The other way is the most common and requires mechanical work, or, if working without machinery, performing more violent work: crushing grapes, with or without the stalks, but crushing them all the same. To put it in simple terms, that’s not making tea, but coffee.

There have been significant changes in the wine from this part of the world (and many other places as well) in the past two decades. The first, which has already been reported ad nauseam here and in other specialized publications, is the idea of obtaining greater freshness. Of letting go of super ripeness and trying to express an idea, a place, a style through grape juice with lower alcohol and with less excessive ripeness. And this is because there’s a consensus among the thinking people of wine, that if you over-ripen your fruit, everything you do, whether in Chile or China, will taste the same, regardless of the variety, or, even worse, regardless of the origin of those grapes.

In recent years, we at Descorchados have witnessed a revolution of wines that have begun to show their differences as harvest dates are moved forward. That’s true in Mendoza’s Uco Valley, in Chile’s Maipo Valley, and in Uruguay’s tannats, whether grown on granitic soils by the Atlantic or on clay and limestone beside the Río de la Plata. What was once just a mass of good but generic wines has now, thanks to greater precision when it comes to harvesting, managed to start showing a sense of place.

But we think there’s something missing from this equation, and that is what happens in the winery. And yes, as we have heard so many times, “wine is made in the vineyard.” It sounds good, but we all know that the idea is still a bit on the romantic side. If you work very well in the vineyard but screw it up in the winery, all your effort is worthless.

Infusion is closely tied to the idea of interfering as little as possible. It’s the idea of a mirror that reflects the flavors of the grapes as they were in the vineyard through the glass of the bottle, trying to be faithful by not overworking things, by not distorting them. This way, and in theory, the fewer intrusive mechanical tasks that are involved, the clearer the reflection in the mirror will be.

The issue is debatable, and from many angles. But what we have noted in our tastings for Descorchados is that some (not all) of the wines we most appreciate are those in which the idea of making tea takes preference over that of making coffee. Coffee, whether ground in a raucous grinder or in the most sophisticated Italian coffeemaker is still noise before the liquid fills the cup.

It’s a theory that will certainly have to be discussed, especially based on the discourse of all those producers who pride themselves on their terroirs, those who proclaim that the key to a great wine is in the climate, in the topography, and in the tradition. And yes, it is a cliché with the flavor of an artificial sweetener, but sometimes the idea of doing less to achieve more is true—and tastes and smells like a subtle tea ceremony.

Patricio Tapia

November 2020