It’s all in the vineyard
I’ve always loved vineyards. When I first started visiting wine country all I knew about vineyards (besides that they were pretty to look at) was that they were where the grapes came from that made the wine. Gradually, after I’d been walked through dozens of them by winemakers and growers, vineyards began to make a certain sense to me, and I started looking more closely at things like trellising, spacing and row orientation, not to mention soils and even what was growing inbetween the rows. I gradually developed an appreciation that a great vineyard is like any great work of art: inimitable and irreplaceable.
When I look over my highest-scoring wines in Wine Enthusiast’s database, it’s hard not to notice the prevalence of vineyard-designated bottlings. About 90-95 percent of my top scorers have borne either the name of a vineyard, or had the word “estate” or “estate-bottled” on the label.
These words, “estate” or “estate bottled,” are defined elastically by the Feds. The official TTB definition is “Estate Bottled means that 100 percent of the wine came from grapes grown on land owned or controlled by the winery, which must be located in a viticultural area. The winery must crush and ferment the grapes and finish, age, and bottle the wine in a continuous process on their premises. The winery and the vineyard must be in the same viticultural area.” In other words, if winery “X” has longterm contracts for grapes from several different growers in the same AVA, it can call the wine “estate bottled,” but that does not mean that it is from a single vineyard. However, in most cases, I know when the wine actually comes from a single vineyard, and I find, looking at the database, that my highest-scoring “estate” wines are indeed from individual vineyards.
Why should it be that the best wines come from individual vineyards? Terroiristas insist that a wine grown in a single place shows a unique sense of that place. Of the wine we now know as Chateau Haut-Brion, Samuel Pepys wrote, on April 10, 1663, that “it hath a good and most particular taste,” a humble but sound description of this “placeness.” Professor Saintsbury, 270 years later, wrote (of an 1858 Romanée-Conti he drank when it was 25 years old) that it “hold[s] to the blood of its clan,” meaning, I think, that it was absolutely true to its terroir (not that Saintsbury ever used the word terroir). Throughout the literature of wine, you hear this stress on place. The Chablisians use the term fleur (flower) to describe those vineyards where Kimmeridigian clay, laden with limestone, rises to the surface. It’s their way of describing special places.
Old Europe, of course, has had a long time to figure out where the special places are to grow the most special wines. Here in California, people were not particularly obsessed with individual vineyards until comparatively recently — let’s say, the last 30 or 40 years. Heitz’s Cabernet Sauvignon from Martha’s Vineyard certainly put the concept of “the single vineyard” into the imaginations of wine lovers. There followed a rush to plant vineyards with the intention of making vineyard-designated wines. A case can be made that the most important viticultural development in California over the last 40 years has been planting the right varieties in the right climates. But equally important has been the development of very great vineyards dedicated to designated wines.
A sense of placeness always has been hard to define. Part of the reason a vineyard-designated wine tends to score highly may well be due to the mysteries of terroir, but it’s also because, with a single vineyard, a winemaker and grapegrower can achieve greater focus and concentration on the vines. It’s hard to pull everything together when you’re managing multiple vineyards. Even if you can control the timing of the pick, you can only be in one place to oversee the sorting area (where many sins occur). If the grapes have to be trucked over any distance to the winery, other unfortunate things can happen, including the premature beginning of fermentation, injury to the grapes, infection through insects, etc. But if you are working with one, single vineyard, located contiguously or close enough to the winemaking facility, it’s much more likely that your grapes will have been meticulously grown and harvested. This is why some wineries (Mondavi, Beaulieu) have created dedicated winemaking facilities for their top wines.
If you have never taken the time to familiarize yourself with a great vineyard, from the pebbles and dirt to the top of the canopy, do so next time you’re visiting wine country. Most likely you’ll find someone who’s delighted to give you a little tour. It will give you a deeper and more profound respect for great wine.