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Regional Studies
Final Thoughts: A 40 year Adventure in Geology, Soils, Landscapes and Wine.
Part 6A - A Better Way to Understand Wine and Enjoy Drinking

Sunday, 13th December, 2015  - David Farmer

In this section I develop themes which were mentioned in Parts 1 to 5:

Part A discusses how climate and weather create wine flavours while briefly looking at the vast topic of the role of viticulture and wine making. I then illustrate this approach by applying these thoughts to a sample of wine regions.

Part B suggests how consumers can use the ideas of climate - weather interacting with landscapes when selecting wine and offers thoughts to assist in buying and drinking.

Part A

No two vineyard regions can be identical because of the infinite ways landscapes are formed and the variations of how climate and the weather interact with each landscape.

Even so each vineyard region does have geographical or physical features which can be measured and compared with other regions and when these are similar it follows that familiar wine flavours should and do repeat across the Globe.

As well the dominant features which indicate the climate, such as latitude and altitude, smooth out the differences between regions even when the appearance of the landscapes are strikingly different.

In this way the climate can be seen as fixing the majority of the flavour profile which alters with the seasonal weather in endless variations around this average.

These ideas are developed by applying them to four commonly held views:

1. When reference is made to wine showing a sense of place, what can this mean?

Observations over many vintages, in some cases going back many hundreds of years, has recognised vineyards of superior quality.

Terms such as Grand Cru, First Growths, and Pradikatswein, link the wine with its vineyards while in less understood regions phrases like a sense of place highlights this origin.

Australians use a similar term, distinguished sites which implies that special places can be found which make wines with characters which cannot be duplicated elsewhere.

Mention was made that sites such as the slope of the Grand Cru vineyards of Chablis which are associated with clearly defined landscape features are rare. There are other examples of small sites largely cloaking a landscape feature, such as Chateau Grillet, and slopes along the Rhone, the Moselle and Rhine valleys.

We have examined how changes in the types of soils, underlying bedrock and geology can be defined, however when this influence on taste is removed boundaries at the vineyard level or larger become no more than property rights or a social convention.

Even so whether using terroir or another synonym like a sense of place, it is a common and natural view to believe wines will reflect their origin.

However there are several problems in both grading vineyards and these general ideas of special sites.

As the landscape of nearly all wine regions varies over short distances the area being referred to must be tiny yet climate and weather are general and can seldom relate to a tiny site while secondly there is the constantly changing weather.

To view some sites as better you would have to show that over many vintages these sites have more favourable weather for ripening the grapes, or some other agreed quality measure, than others nearby.

This may be so but it cannot be so every season which means the other factors of viticulture and wine making must explain the flavour differences.

i) Thoughts On Special Locations from a Trip to Patagonia

Patagonia, Argentine-El Bolson is at 42°S similar to Marlborough, New Zealand.

In December, 2003 I drove south from Mendoza to Rio Gallegos and noted:
"Going south the furthest I found a vineyard was Patagonian Wines, near El Bolson which is 1360 kilometres south of Mendoza [El Bolson is 130 kilometres south of Bariloche]. This vineyard is real pioneer stuff. It's sited on a terminal moraine, a geological formation left by a retreating glacier, in a good sunny spot.

Even in December the surrounding mountains were snow capped. Raspberries were growing well which is a good sign for pinot noir. The latitude is 42°S and I am uncertain of the altitude but guess it to be about 1200 metres."

For the ultimate cool climate experience you could go to the tip of this land and plant a vineyard. This would mean you were both eccentric and wealthy as keeping the vines alive would be a test. When once every 20 years the weather was warm enough to ripen the grapes would the ultimate wine result or would it be no different to that made at El Bolson in a good year?

Rather than becoming a distinguished site this test teaches us that economics plays a role in how we grade sites.

ii) Since the average flavour we may expect is controlled by the climate this means the weather each vintage will create flavours either side of the norm. It is also likely that some regions will experience weather which leads to a greater divergence from the norm than others.

It follows that the weather will at times favour what are seen as less regarded sites although these vineyards may not be able to take advantage of this from the viticulture or in the winery.

This does suggest however that if an agreed measure to quantify the quality of ripe fruit was used, it would be possible to grade vineyards.

Initially this score would be the percentage likelihood that each vintage would produce grapes that reached ripeness levels considered normal for that area.

However being either side of the average or norm is not the same as saying the vineyard produces grapes with inferior or superior flavours and other reasons are needed to explain the flavour advantage or higher rating of one site over another.

*Correction to a comment in Part 5; "This leads to the thought that the popular notion of a wine showing a sense of place is better replaced by thinking of a locale as a place where climate and weather roughly reaches an optimum for that variety though it will rarely be a small area," needs qualifying.

The idea of each variety reaching on optimum, perhaps within a narrow band of climate-weather, is too restrictive. I am ever mindful of my own tasting experience and recall the following appraisal of a warm climate pinot noir:

"The 1976 Tyrrells Vat 6 Hunter River Pinot Noir however hit the big time in 1980, when alongside Chateau Petrus and Romanee Conti it was named in the top 12 wines of the world by Time magazine." The rise and rise of Pinot Noir, Grapegrower and winemaker, 18th November, 2013.

2. As vineyard regions mature will they follow the French-European experience and sub-divide into smaller lots reflecting higher quality?

From part 5: "Of the great number of boundaries only a handful enclose a cluster of vineyards where the landscape is so clearly defined that it can be said of each vineyard they are of equal importance. The most obvious example is the Grand Cru slope of Chablis."

The distinctive Grand Cru slopes of Chablis, south of 48°N.

Since the 1950's numerous vineyards have been developed in new world countries. In addition to new plantings in long established regions, many previously unplanted regions have appeared.

The development of new regions across many countries has been very successful and it is natural to think that some vineyard areas will be better than others.

If better areas are slowly proven they will be of a general character and not local and I see no reason why the tiny sub-divisions of the European experience which represent social factors will be repeated.

Indeed the whole idea of references to better regions must be approached with caution.

I recall the pioneers of Martinborough, New Zealand believed they had found a unique location but later, not far away, vineyards along the terraces of another stream bordering Te Muna Road turned out to be just as interesting.

3. Will vineyard regions mature the European way by specialising in a few varieties?

The influence of old European regions and French ideas of Appellation Controlee is strong in steering the debates about wine.

Ultimately the market and the constant churning of the ideas of growers and winemakers is the best way to decide what a region should grow. Defining by law the varieties for any region may have begun with good intentions but is now outmoded.

We know that all varieties will ripen across a spectrum of climate. All varieties will ripen in a warm region while in cooler regions a smaller number achieve the ripeness which leads to an agreeable taste.

While there is merit in the practise of a region having a specialty such that the flow of ideas and constant testing pushes to the limit what that variety can achieve at that place, the benefit is as much to do with marketing and sales as with taste.

Alas it can all to readily become restrictive and better the new world way of growing many varieties than being trapped along the Loire Valley growing melon, chenin blanc and cabernet franc.

4. How much does the role of viticulture and wine making play in the final taste and can this be quantified?

As noted in the Introduction: "To make it easier to understand what these articles are about let's just pick a number and say that 50% of the flavour in a bottle is created before the grapes enter the winery and it is that number we are discussing."

The other half, viticulture and wine making, is a large topic and beyond the scope of this work, though I list several variables which I have found to be important in flavour development.

i) Factors in the vineyards.
Cropping levels
Availability of water when need by the vine.
Deciding on the picking time.

ii) Factors in the winery.
How much should the wine making influence the taste during fermentation and post ferment maturation.
The final blending of different components.

There are so many variables that play out in such complex ways that we can be certain that two identical quantities of grapes made into wine at two wineries will quickly show differences.

This means that identical varieties in similar climates from distant regions are as likely to taste as familiar as unfamiliar.

A remarkable example can be found in the wines of Australia and New Zealand which are made with a wine making ethos which tends to produce wines which display a pure fruit quality. In many other regions this aspect is smothered as the equipment means it cannot be captured, or is seen as less important in the taste or other factors are seen as important.

Consumers surely know that the wine making idiosyncrasies of some regions are such that the climatic factors in the taste are pushed well into the background.

I have always found it odd that so much of the teaching of wine is based on being asked to identifying varieties and regions when really what is being asked is to identify local methods of making wine.

This huge topic with its vast number of variables allows each region to promote as accepted practise, methods that lead to wines which are unique. It is also the heart and soul of the wine business as critics and drinkers can divide in minute detail the offerings of each region.

It is natural that growers and the wine makers in a region will tend to follow a distinctive pattern likely agreeing to a common picking time and wine making practises which in turn develop a distinctive regional taste.

Of course nothing remains set and even old regions can be fractured on fundamentals such as introducing new varieties or new oak which challenges tradition.

Concluding Thoughts

I find imagining how the weather shift in complex patterns, respecting no borders or boundaries, does wonders for thinking about wine flavours in a fresh way.

Looking down at the swirling patterns in the Earth’s atmosphere provides a better perspective than that of the farmer ploughing soil between the vines and thinking of what lies below.

Wine books published in Europe prior to 1970 had little to say about countries far away. The occasional enlightened thought or an unbiased judging result highlighting new world regions was swamped by the view that the finest regions had been identified.

The World Atlas of Wine (1971) crammed in a few new world regions though the author, quicker than most, expanded the coverage with each new edition.

Fortunately objective measurements beat habitual beliefs to produce the World of wine, and now we can even anticipate the results from places which have never been planted with vines.

Thoughts on Old Europe and the New World

The ideas expressed here make me ask questions less of the new world and more of the long established European regions. I do not think they show their full potential, being held back by tradition as much as capital and expertise.

The complex physical features of the Mediterranean basin.

Consider the Mediterranean Basin a region straddling a favourable zone for making wines with its maze of coastal locations, archipelagos and islands. This basin extends between 32°N to 44°N and while an astonishing range of wines are made it is perplexing that the quality lags so far behind the potential.

In the Pacific Ocean tiny New Zealand which covers 35°S to 45°S shows what is possible and what we have to look forward too when all of the Mediterranean finally shines.

I like the complex weather of coastal locations and how this is expressed over the expanse of river flats and terraces before a river enters the ocean. Bordeaux shows what is possible so better things can be expected from the Loire, and further south the Duero, and Tagus.

Of the region of Bordeaux I think it unlikely that the great sites are set in stone. Viewing wine regions without boundaries questions the hierarchy of the classified growths as the location of the vineyard is less important suggesting the foundations are subjective and unstable.

While it is possible the small rises which distinguish some First Growths do receive more favourable weather than other sites it is unlikely to be that much.

There are times when the right bank gets better weather than the left bank and times when currently less favoured vineyards will get the best of the season.

While the ratings of 1855 have powered the modern wine culture the quality gap between the classified growths and the surrounding vineyards will surely close as the decades march on. The capital that is currently pouring into Bordeaux will make the future very interesting.

Hence for all regions of which Bordeaux is just an example the issue of quality is better resolved by looking at viticulture and wine making and if I was to highlight one aspect that gives the best wines an advantage it is being able to afford grape pickers to move at the right time.

Great Wine, How Does it Happen?

There is a strong view that only rare, small locations can make the really great wines and I have given my reasons why this is not so.

Again it’s instructive to look at new world regions for clues particularly as seemingly out of nowhere highly rated wines can be produced from regions which have a short history.

Australian examples are the wines of Clonakilla (Canberra District), Giaconda (Beechworth) and Bass Philip (South Gippsland) which reflect not a rare or distinguished site but rather a patch of ground in a favourable climate-weather zone where the wine artist has chosen to practise.

The split between what nature provides and man creates in the flavours of a bottle depends on what you are trying to perfect. You may capture one and subdue the other though all of the great wines I can think of are enhanced by what happens in the winery.

Fashion is ever present in the world of wine and the artist of warm climate wines will approach problems in a different way to that of a colleague in a cooler zone but the expressions of both are of equal validity though acceptance by consumers will swing back and forth.

As well it is apparent that an important factor in making great wine is assisted by being part of a group such that a ready exchange of views solves problems and lift standards and this process is akin to the Silicon Valley effect.

So finally after a long period of looking elsewhere I have returned to the obvious that a strong sense of purpose is what makes great wine.

Viewing Vineyard Sites in a Different way

It is likely that vineyards can be quantified based on an agreed measure of grape ripening. Such percentages would alter for each area, being quite low for marginal cool areas while approaching 100% for warmer areas.

An example might be that in a given area the climate means that 90% of vintages reach an agreed sugar level, or some other defining parameters, thus producing grapes satisfactory to the wine maker.

It may also be shown that of these nine vintages, an average of three, which might rate as an area high, make wines well above the norm, and so on.

These thoughts of course are not dissimilar to the original grading of German vineyards and the ability of the best vineyards to occasionally produce grapes of extra-ordinary sugar levels.

There is also an economic factor as wine has to be sold thus the market reacts in countless ways by balancing the worth of the crop to the possibilities in the market place. For example it values cool climate fruit at a higher price than volume production of warm climate fruit.

How thoughts about vineyard ratings, climate and weather, are balanced against the rating of the wine by experts is difficult to say though this is managed at the moment in a haphazard way.

Finally I still wonder if it is possible to quantify the nature versus human influence in a bottle of wine though it's as likely to be wrong as it is futile.

While this thought takes me back to the start; how do you evaluate a bottle of wine? I will look more closely at this in Part B.




Final Thoughts: A 40 year Adventure in Geology, Soils, Landscapes and Wine.
Part 5 - The New Wine Regions of Australia

Final Thoughts: A 40 year Adventure in Geology, Soils, Landscapes and Wine.
Part 4 - Terroir Makes Little Sense and is a Term Best Left to the French

Final Thoughts: A 40 year Adventure in Geology, Soils, Landscapes and Wine.
Part 3 - Clues from Other Regions, New Zealand, Argentine and Australia

Final Thoughts: A 40 year Adventure in Geology, Soils, Landscapes and Wine.
Part 2 - Detailed Mapping in Australia Offers Clues on Soils, Rocks and Taste

Final Thoughts: A 40 year Adventure in Geology, Soils, Landscapes and Wine.
Part 1. Understanding the Topic, Terroir and the French Experience.

Introduction: Wine Flavours, Climate, Weather, Soils and Geology

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