Wine Ink: Place is wine’s critical component
Kelly J. Hayes
We are often so consumed with which wines have the best scores or sell the most or cost the most that it is easy to lose sight of one of wine’s most fundamental facts: it’s really all about the farming. That is to say that a wine, any and every wine, is, at its essence, nothing more or less than a natural product produced from vines planted in dirt.
We look at wines as brands, with fancy labels, pedigreed winemakers and glowing reviews, reacting to them like we do brands of cars or watches or fashion. But in reality each bottle begins with a vine and a bud growing in harmony with the natural cycles of the Earth. Before it becomes a “thing” it is just an agricultural product.
Ask an honest winemaker and he or she will tell you that their skills, talents, knowledge and experience all are secondary in the process of producing great wines when compared to the quality of the fruit, of the grapes. Great winemakers recognize that what makes great wine is sourcing fruit from sites that are best suited for the variety of grape that is planted.
The French have a word to describe it: terroir. Pronounced “tear-waah” (swallow the final ‘r’), it may well be the most important word in winemaking. Terroir refers to all of the factors that make a perfect location for growing a particular wine grape. These include, but are not limited to: the soils, the daily temperature swings, the hours and days in the growing season, the amount of moisture that is derived, the altitude, the latitude and the way the wind blows.
But for some, terroir also has a magical, indefinable connotation, one that cannot be measured by statistics and data alone. One that is a bit more spiritual, a bit more woo-woo, if you will. It is about that indescribable ability of a place to impart something special, something unique to the way a particular wine tastes when it is born in that particular place.
Of all the elements that go into making that bottle of wine that you select in your wine shop or pick out of your cellar, terroir may be the most significant. The entire world of wine revolves around finding a proper patch of land and then farming it appropriately to make an individual wine.
And it is different for every wine. An estate in Bordeaux may grow cabernet sauvignon, merlot and malbec on flat lands, with gravelly or clay soils in southwestern France, to make what many consider to be the finest wines on Earth. But those same grape varieties may also be planted in a different hemisphere some 6,800 miles distant on a rocky hillside on the slopes of the Argentine Andes and offer up equally delicious but completely different aromas, flavors and mouth feel. It is part of what makes the world of wine so infinitely fascinating.
The vast majority of the wine world is built on the premise that some places produce better wines than others, even if they are in the same region. In France, a system called the AOC, the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée, delineates and ranks those regions that are deemed perfect for planting certain grape varietals. This desire to identify special places goes back to the Classification of 1855, which ranked the regions of Bordeaux and provided rules for what and how wines could be made.
This is similar to other wine regions on Earth that use borders and boundaries to help make sense of the characteristics that make special and unique wines. Look on the shelves of your wine shop at Italian wines, for example, and you will see the letters DOCG or DOC on the labels. These refer to special regions that are well known for, and have a history of, producing great wines.
But it doesn’t end there. Many wines are made from smaller plots of land, say a particular estate within a region or in a single vineyard within an estate, or a block within a single vineyard, or even a few rows of vines within a block. The more micro the area sourced does not necessarily make a better wine, but usually it will at least indicate that a winemaker is aware, if not obsessed, about tapping into the terroir of that small plot of earth.
The wine experience can be greatly enhanced by paying attention to the source of the wines you drink. Reading the labels on your wines and taking a moment to consider the place where the vines live, the language that the farmers speak, the sun and the hills, or even the time of year that the grapes are grown can make what is in your glass that much richer.
As in real estate, location is everything.
Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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