From Henschke to Humbrecht: can winemakers be considered artists?

Commentators have long debated the concept of winemaking as art. it may well be valid, argues Harry Eyres, but in the context of the winery, the greatest art form is minimalism

Words by Harry Eyres

Noma Bar illustration
Illustration: Noma Bar

This is not going to be another of those grandly philosophical essays that attempt to answer the question of whether wine can be regarded as art. Such enquiries tend to run swiftly into metaphysical quicksand: wines can be complex, certainly, and can occasion worthwhile aesthetic debate. But can a Burgundy or Barolo possess the philosophical and spiritual depth of Eliot’s Middlemarch or Bach’s St Matthew Passion


Instead, I take it for granted that there are elements of art in wine. My question is, where might we find those elements? And can we give any credence to the notion of winemaker as artist? 


This is already dangerous territory. For me, an amber warning light (the ‘pseud alert’, to be more technical) starts flashing when I come across any winemaker claiming to be an artist. In truth, very few of the world’s most admirable winemakers make such claims. The vignerons of Burgundy, the winzer of the Mosel or artisan producers in Piedmont tend to be rather humble, not least because they see their work as founded in agriculture: they are wedded to the soil and to the seasons.


It’s also the case that nowadays the training for winemakers and viticulturists is overwhelmingly a scientific one. The power of science in winemaking has increased immeasurably over the past few decades. The micro-biological and biochemical processes involved in wine growing and winemaking are now well understood and can be controlled to an extent unimaginable half a century ago. Not to mention such novel techniques as reverse osmosis or micro-oxygenation. (Remember, even malolactic fermentation wasn’t really understood until the 1950s – or even the 1980s in some parts, including rustic corners of Burgundy that I won’t name.)

Illustration: Noma Bar

Many contemporary winemakers and wine growers regard their work as primarily scientific; they speak in the language, and numbers, of science. All the same, most wine experts would agree that some winemakers can make a wine sing, while their neighbours – in the next-door château, plot or row of vines – can singularly fail to do the same. Some have a feel for wine that is denied to others. 


But what are we talking about here? Is it really a matter of ‘doing’ things or even ‘making’ wine? Hardly anyone nowadays disputes the primacy of the idea of terroir or that winemaking starts in the vineyard. Similarly, we are often told it’s mostly a matter of letting the terroir speak and express itself and that it’s the voice of the terroir not the voice of the winemaker that you want to hear. So, can the interpretation of terroir be an art?

Olivier Humbrecht of Domaine Zind Humbrecht in Alsace believes it can, ‘absolutely, and it can be badly or superbly done. Understanding a great terroir requires a sensitivity that goes beyond science,’ he says. For Eden Valley’s Stephen Henschke, speaking of the 150-year-old grandfather vines in his Hill of Grace vineyard, ‘When we walk through the vineyard during harvest, tasting the grapes, that is when we feel the grace, magic and mystique of the site, and this is the art.’ 


For both Humbrecht and Henschke, art and sensitivity involve a commitment to biodynamic farming and principles that certainly go beyond science. For Humbrecht, biodynamics comes in where science meets its limits – ‘when one cannot understand any more the concepts of life, consciousness, taste, energy’.


If that sounds somewhat mystical, then Humbrecht’s care of his vines is more measured. ‘Each vine (especially from a massal selection) can be considered a different individual. Each individual will react differently to all the variables that can influence them: climate, human intervention, ecosystem. The art of the wine grower and winemaker is to adapt, change their attitude and react differently to face all these challenges. People also change: taste, ideas, mood… So the artistic wine grower may want to change his or her interpretation as the years pass.’

Olivier Humbrecht and Stephen Henschke
For Stephen Henschke and Olivier Humbrecht, winemaking art and sensitivity involve a commitment to biodynamic farming that goes beyond science. But does that make them worthy of comparison to Bach or George Eliot?

Humbrecht’s artistry is not a complete rejection of modern scientific winemaking, but rather an acknowledgment that this approach is not the answer to everything. Some go considerably further. Among the most seminal exponents of what is known as natural wine is Josko Gravner, Friuli’s pioneer of orange wine. Gravner once told me he had tried all the modern methods and theories of wine growing and (white) winemaking but decided that the best treatises on the subject had been written by the ancient Romans, notably Columella. He ferments his white and orange wines – skins, pips and all – in large Roman-style clay amphorae imported from Georgia. You could say his artistry consists mainly of leaving things be, but the results are extraordinary: majestic, almost solemn wines that somehow resemble the gnomic Gravner himself. 


Another noted ‘natural’ winemaker is Frank Cornelissen on the north slope of Etna. He sees himself as more an artisan than an artist – though in the ‘oriental way, where great artisanship is a form of art’. As for where the artistry lies: ‘Sometimes the decisions that are made in a split second are the “genius” and/or artistic elements in the process,’ he says. 


Douro producer Dirk van der Niepoort doesn’t go as far as Gravner or Cornelissen in the natural direction (‘I have nothing against sulphur,’ he says, though he uses little), but he is another inspired winemaker who leaves an artistic touch without claiming to be an artist. He’d just spent a week in New York with some wild-sounding musicians when I caught up with him earlier this year. As a result, he had decided that he was definitely not an artist. ‘They are people who overdo everything,’ he said of the music-makers. ‘I was the only sensible person there.’ That has to be taken with a pinch of salt, as anyone who knows the exuberant Niepoort will understand. 


‘There are certainly winemakers who are engineers, and others I might consider to be artists,’ Niepoort says. ‘The artists are the ones who don’t consider themselves to be artists.’ He is dubious about the very term ‘winemaker’. ‘In the past, nobody talked about winemakers. There were cellar masters, who respected the terroir. Bringing up a wine is like raising a child – letting it get hurt, but not too much.’

Frank Cornelissen
Frank Cornelissen sees himself more as artisan than artist
'There are certainly winemakers who I consider to be artists,' says Dirk van der Niepoort

An obstacle to true artistic freedom for Niepoort is universities or colleges ‘where they tell you how to make wine. We don’t work according to recipes – we respect nature and adapt according to the year.’ I ask about the timing of the vintage, and once again Niepoort defies orthodoxy: ‘I like a touch of greenness, which they tell you in the universities is a fault. They talk about “physiologically ripe grapes”, which, for me, are overripe.’ 


Niepoort’s sensible, pragmatic approach, which still incorporates a kind of artistry (and is relatively tolerant of sulphur), seems to me to be shared by the team at Dry River in New Zealand’s Martinborough. Here, though, founder Neil McCallum undoubtedly sees himself as more of a scientist than an artist; he is a research chemist by training. McCallum’s key discovery – that light matters more than heat, and that phenolic ripeness without excessive sugar and alcohol, leading to complex and long-lasting wines, can be achieved through maximum light exposure – sounds more scientific than artistic. Or rather, it is a rather wonderful fusion of science and art, just like the wines themselves.


Burgundy is the cynosure for winemakers or wine growers all over the world. The quest to make a great Burgundy has been described as something like the search for the Holy Grail. (To be strictly Arthurian, it was only Galahad who was considered sufficiently pure of heart to attain it, which begs the question, who is the Galahad of Burgundy?) So, presumably, Burgundian winemakers are wine’s ultimate artists? Well, yes and no. Maison Joseph Drouhin’s head winemaker Véronique Drouhin says it ‘absolutely’ makes sense to think of the vigneron as artist. The artistry ‘starts in the vineyard. Pruning the vine and giving it its shape is a form of art close to sculpting.’ When it comes to interpretation of terroir, Drouhin says she often compares her terroirs to masterpieces of music. ‘Each of us will make wine according to our own sensibility. We could be a couple of winemakers working the same terroirs, the same piece of music. Each of us will have our own way of expressing it.’ Similarly, blending ‘is like conducting an orchestra [to] get the best harmony’.

Winemakers today start from a position of humility that is very different from the demiurgic heroism of Tolstoy (above), or Beethoven

On the other hand, there is perhaps no wine region in the world where the term winemaker seems more inappropriate. Burgundian vignerons, who trace their lineage back to Cistercian monks, are the ultimate servants of terroir. The whole intricate and minutely subdivided system of crus and climats in Burgundy prioritises the sanctity of the land over human self-assertion and ego. 


I have heard Burgundian growers describing their wines in terms of spirituality and grace. These would not be qualities imparted by a human winemaker. Frédéric Mugnier of the celebrated Domaine Jacques-Frédéric Mugnier, in an interesting aside, once quoted Glenn Gould’s remark that his 1955 recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations contained ‘too much piano playing’. This seems to imply a minimalist approach to wine growing and winemaking – or at least to an aspiration to let the terroir speak for itself.


Wine growers and winemakers today start from a position of humility that is very different from the demiurgic heroism of a Tolstoy, a Beethoven or a Michelangelo. They are shepherds of terroir at the mercy of the weather, the season and all kinds of pests (as we all are, it turns out). But within those strict parameters, they can exercise their touch, their feel, their sensibility and – yes, in the least egotistical way possible – their artistry, too. Long may they continue to do so.


This article appears in the Winter 2020 edition of Club Oenologique magazine. To get your copy, see below