In winemaking we measure our experience not in years, but in the number of vintages. Between Bill & I, throwing in the odd harvest in the Southern Hemisphere and Europe, we count over 80 collective harvests.
In that time we have seen a number of advances and developments, from the vineyard to the winery. Parsing apart what makes truly great wine is to ponder the evolution of these changes, what separates true advances in winemaking & grape growing from trend and fad.
Over the years perception has shifted broadly. Sugar levels at harvest have risen and sunk, only to rise again. The use of oak barrels has carried cries of superiority from France to Hungary to the United States, with ever increasing prices and ever less expensive alternatives like oak chips finding their way into event he least expensive mass market brands. Even how we define and describe varietal character has ranged widely during our time; indeed, many would argue that our perception of quality itself has shifted, with particular wine styles scored highly in the wine press (converting to sales) while other styles are largely left out of the media discussion and left lonely on wine store shelves.
In the 70s growers were rewarded, more directly than today, for high sugars… the higher the better. In the 80s, with the near “death by late harvesting” of Zinfandel (and a growing anti alcohol lobby), we looked to Europe and contemplated the role of wine as food. Then in the fast paced 90s, high sugar again became a major part of the fine wine equation, and, at least in Cabernet, we developed a pathological fear of any plant based character that was green or tannic.
Throughout this time, a profound amount of research emerged from places like UC Davis and the University of Bordeaux. We gained a better understanding of even ripeness in the vineyard and the powerful impact of green seed & stem tannins. Vineyard managers began mapping vineyard sites and matching clones to contour, rootstock to soil type – in addition to developing advanced trellising techniques aimed at tempering the effect of warm climates and maximizing the sun exposure of more marginal regions. Here is Napa, as phylloxera continued its “lousy” march through Napa Valley’s vineyards, many growers took the positive approach and adopted these advances with a fervor.
What starts in the vineyard plays out in our choices of winery equipment. A melange of new “advanced” and cutting edge equipment entered the winery; from destemmers to presses, from multi sized temperatured controlled stainless steel tanks to the now de-rigour sorting tables enabling the hand sorting of fruit.
Yet, with all of these advances, it remains an open question whether or not we have done ourselves any favors with the squeaky clean, virus free plant material and sophisticated winery tools. The great debate about ripeness, and the variation of styles from the 40’s until today, has never reconciled into a cohesive definition of perfect wines. If anything, the “advances” have led to increased debate. Traditionalists, extolling the virtues of the great 28 vintage in Bordeaux, the legendary wines of Inglenook from the 40s and 50s, decry the uniformity of the wines from the great vintages (and here I am thinking about 2000 in Bordeaux and 1997 in Napa Valley). Modernists assert the preference of market driven wines for accesability, for plush tannins and fruit driven styles. The modern wine press, whose scores drive the bulk of the high end wine market, side on the latter.
Yet, in the world of fine and rare wine, are we not all trying to achieve a form of perfection? Whose perfection?
If we prune and farm for even ripeness, identifying the moment of optimal ripeness is a matter of much debate. For some it comes as the seeds begin to harden and brown, for others it is not until the grapes raisin on the vine. Berkeley chef, Paul Bertolli, devotes a chapter in his book Cooking by Hand on ripeness and his philosophical approach appeals to me … in it he says such things as “… the state of ripeness may amount to only minutes, hours or days in the garden (it’s a little longer for grapes). Or a few years in a years in a human life, yielding to the winding down of function, decay, and eventual dissolution.” “…intensity is the hallmark of ripeness, the culmination of growth and experience. But ripeness is not simply the reward for waiting nor is it necessarily guaranteed. The precondition of ripeness is maturity, which in turn can only come about through the right kind of development along the way. Ripeness, then is one of the naturally fortunate outcomes of life.”(p 30)
How do you decide what is right? If you believe in terroir, than it is situational and there will be a “best practice” for each vineyard. But there is the collective aspect as well… how else do you explain Amarone or Champagne, where technique has been raised to prominence over fruit. Do Napa Valley Cabernets now fall into that category where technique (oak levels, jammy, almost sweet fruit) has become an important identifier for wines?
For us at Meteor Vineyard, the final blending of 2008 will unfold this month. The fruit in barrel is the careful amalgamation of best practices from every era. On the modern, is the carefully selected clones and rootstocks planted by Mike Wolf. Purposeful trellising maximizing the long temperate growing season of the Meteor Vineyard hillside, diligent work in the vineyard throughout the cycle farming for uniform ripeness while recognizing the unique nature of each clone, each block, each row – and ultimately each vine. From there we, as wine makers, are largely shepherds, a practice as old as organized community – flagging harvest at a moment when the natural acids of Coombsville meld with the rich fruit characters of Cabernet Sauvignon and the natural tannin structure of the grape. No excessive extraction, diligent use of new barrels (around 50%) and 18 to 20 months in barrel to round out the wines.
Perhaps that is the wisdom of 80 harvests and the ease of working with a perfect site. The great wines have always come from the land, we, as viticulturalists and winemakers are simply here to help them along.