Put romanticism aside and technology has its place alongside experienced hands
Corkscrews have been in existence for almost 400 years, and for a long time that was the wine world’s most notable invention. Wine might have a reputation for being somewhat old-fashioned, but the last few decades have witnessed breakthroughs that have revolutionised how wine is made, consumed and discussed.
Today, wine is less about men with red trousers (and even redder faces) gloating about ancient vintages, and more about a younger generation equipped with open minds and all the latest technology.
A VINE ROMANCE?
Picture a vigneron, with hands as gnarled as the ancient vines she works with, slowly moving among the rows as the sun beats down from a clear blue sky. Now picture robotic pruners, heat-mapping drones and underground moisture sensors – all connected to smartphone apps that you can control from the palm of your not-so-gnarled hand.
These days, the second scenario is increasingly commonplace. Wine lovers might prefer to think of vineyards in a romanticised way, but improvements in viticultural technology have been crucial to the ever-increasing quality of our favourite drink. Growers can now map their vineyards in minuscule detail and make planting decisions accordingly, optimise the health of their grapes using scanners that analyse sap flow and nitrogen levels, and even scare off pesky birds using lasers instead of netting.
Most recently, vineyard technology has been focusing more on sustainability. For example, irrigation systems that maximise water efficiency and recycling crop sprayers that minimise wastage. However, for some producers, traditional techniques such as horse-drawn ploughing and good old human instinct are far superior, and in many places you can find a combination of technology both old and new.
What’s certain is that the choices available in the vineyard have been fundamental in giving us the range and quality of grapes being grown today.
It’s the same story in the winery. While old oak barrels and mechanical presses still have a role to play, many of the world’s most prestigious producers employ tech to improve the winemaking process. Many of them prefer to keep this behind closed doors, but the ingenious machinery being used is something to be celebrated rather than concealed.
Temperature control and stainless steel tanks are probably the most significant improvements in winemaking over the last 50 years. They are now ubiquitous, allowing producers to avoid the oxidised, flat wines that were routine in the past. From crushing to bottling, the wine industry depends on technology to bring drinkers the best possible quality – in some places, wineries look more like Mission Control than farm buildings.
Take the optical sorter, for example. This device consists of a conveyer belt that passes grapes beneath a series of cameras. By setting the relevant parameters, winemakers can select the preferred colour, size and density of the berries. Any that don’t make the grade are summarily ejected by a row of air-jet nozzles, leaving only the most pristine grapes to be turned into wine.
Finally, we come to the most important part of wine: enjoying a glass or two. From a wine lover’s perspective, this is where the latest technology is most visible, and it has had a significant impact on how we choose and serve wine.
There are hundreds of wine apps available, but one of them reigns supreme: Vivino. From humble beginnings, this labelscanning app has now amassed well over one billion scanned labels, giving it the most comprehensive database of wine in existence. User-generated reviews assign an aggregated score out of five to each wine, giving users an indication of quality before they buy – which can also be done through the app, of course. Last year, their sales jumped to S$355 million.
Once the bottle is in your hand, we come to perhaps the most important recent breakthrough in wine consumption: Coravin. It was created by an American surgeon who realized that a medical-grade needle could pierce through a cork to extract wine, and the cork would then completely reseal after the needle was removed. By using inert gas to displace the wine, what remains in the bottle can be preserved in perfect condition.
This ingenious device has made it possible to serve any wine without committing to the whole bottle – which is how 67 Pall Mall, the new Member’s club for wine lovers in Singapore is able to serve more than 800 wines by the glass.
DRINKING TO THE FUTURE
Your corkscrew might not be obsolete just yet, but technology is having a revolutionary effect on wine. While not everyone might appreciate every innovation, there’s no question that technology has given us a wider choice of better wine around the world, while still honouring wine’s fundamental purpose: to express a specific time and place in delicious liquid form.
Writer, educator, Master of Wine and occasional pianist, Richard has worked in wine since 2001, first in London and now in Singapore as resident MW at 67 Pall Mall, the Members’ Club for wine lovers, opening later this year. He has written regularly for JancisRobinson.com since 2008, as well as judging, presenting, educating, tweeting and sometimes singing about all things vinous.