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Does a grower’s personality enter into the wine?



In our ongoing attempt to understand terroir, or cru–the sum total of influences upon the character and quality of a wine—we now come across the statement by Eric Lebel. He is (or was, when Champagne, Uncorked was published, earlier this year), the Chef de Cave, or cellarmaster, at Krug Champagne.

The book’s author, Alan Tardi, interviewed him extensively; Tardi wanted to know in particular what makes for the highest quality in a Champagne. Lebel told him this: “For Krug, it all begins here, in the vineyards…by carefully selecting the specific parcels we want, those that produce high quality, yes, of course, but also high personality. The character of the grapes from the individual parcels, and the characters of the individuals that grow them, are preserved by this approach, and all of them will eventually turn up to play their part in the wine.”

“The characters of the individuals that grow them…in the wine.”  Wow. Really? Krug buys many of its grapes from local growers, some of whom are portrayed in Tardi’s book: Gerard Moreau, taciturn, “solid, like the earth.” Robert Blanc, “gregarious, extraverted, the complete opposite of Gerard Moreau,” and others. Each sells fruit to Lebel, “and this is a big part of where complexity comes from,” Lebel tells Tardi; “this mix of personalities contributes as much to the [Krug] Grande Cuvée as the meteorological events of the season or the terroir where the grapes are grown.”

When I read these words I had to put down the book, rub my eyes and think. Grower personality as important as weather and soil? Sacre bleu! It’s not just that each grower takes a different approach to his viticulture; in fact, it’s not even clear that they do. By and large, growing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in Champagne is all about beating the climate and coming up with a good, clean crop. But here is Lebel stating, as fact, that somehow, beyond all measurable weather and soil conditions or physical practices in the vineyard, the personality or soul of the grower finds its way into the final wine.

This is an exceptionally curious and provocative thing to say. How does the “personality” of a grapegrower enter into the wine? Can it really be as important as chalk? We are talking about sheer mystery…the inexplicable. It would be easy to dismiss this as humbug, except that Lebel has a great deal of credibility. One has to believe that he knows what he’s talking about. I have no idea if Moreau’s earthiness or Blanc’s gregariousness actually play a role in what I experience when I drink Krug Grande Cuvée (which I wish I could more often). But I really, really like the thought that, somehow, these gentlemen’s spirits are in the wine. That is about the most romantic thing I’ve heard in a long time–and what is great wine, if not romantic?

Have a lovely weekend, and if you can, drink Champagne!

  1. I definitely think the grower is part of the overall terroir of a vineyard. After all, they’re the ones making all the decisions. Aside from the initial ones of where to plant, what plant material to use, spacing, trellising, etc., they also make all the choices that occur throughout the growing season. Have a different grower take over a vineyard and I’m sure the resulting fruit would be different. That’s one of the major reasons why I never tell a grower what to do in our sections. I want each vineyard’s wine to be as unique as possible, so letting the individual growers do “their thing” adds to that distinctiveness.

    A grower’s personality definitely affects how they approach things. So it’s natural to anthropomorphize after the fact and attribute certain traits of the wine to the growers, but I’m not sure if it’s causation or simply correlation.

    Fun to think about.

    — Loring Wine Company

  2. Brian, fascinating indeed! Anything that contributes to the romantic mystery of great wine is always good.

  3. Patrick says:

    I wonder to what extent winemaking itself is a self-expressive activity by a winemaker. It may not be as expressive as making a painting, but still the personality of the winemaker (as well as the grower) has to enter into the decisions that each makes. A different grower or winemaker will make a different product, given the same raw materials.

  4. “If you bake bread with indifference, you bake a bitter bread that feeds but half man’s hunger.
    And if you grudge the crushing of the grapes, your grudge distils a poison in the wine.”
    – Kahlil Gibran

  5. Bob Henry says:

    So now we have “grape whisperers”?

    We already have grape disc jockeys.

    (I understand Randall Graham plays Frank Zappa music to his vines.)

    Excerpt from The Guardian Online
    (Jan 30, 2010):

    “Tasting Notes: Playing Music to Plants in the Vineyards”

    By Tim Atkin, MW
    “On Wine”

    Stroll through the vineyards of the De Morgenzon farm in Stellenbosch and the sound that surrounds you is literally music to your ears. It may have to compete with the chatter of pruners or the mechanical chug of a tractor, but 24 hours a day, pieces by Bach, Corelli and Albinoni are piped through outdoor speakers into the South African air.

    . . .

    What’s new about the music at De Morgenzon is that it’s aimed at vines, not vineyard workers. I’ve heard of people hugging trees or talking to their plants, but not of anyone regaling their grapes with a play list that is pure Classic FM. . . .

    According to [De Morgenzon farm owner Hylton] Appelbaum, his vines respond to a very particular style of classical music. Rock, pop, rap, techno and jazz don’t have the same effect. Nor, surprisingly, do choral works; maybe the vines don’t like being serenaded in German. What they enjoy is something harmonious and melodious; in short, wordless baroque music.

    How does he know the vines are responding to the music? Because they grow more vigorously and look more healthy, apparently. Moderate vigour is a good thing in a vineyard. Within reason, a vine with a bigger surface area of leaves increases photosynthesis and, as a result, sugar and flavour accumulation in its grapes.

    Appelbaum’s claims have scientific backing. In 2007, researchers at South Korea’s National Institute of Agricultural Biotechnology found classical music triggered a response in two specific genes (rbcS and Ald) in rice plants. In the same year, some pointy heads at Trakya University in Turkey found “relaxing, calming and mentally invigorating music” had a positive effect on root growth in onions during germination.

    . . .

  6. If you’ve ever watched a “drive-by” vineyard manager (often with an absentee owner) versus an owner/grower who takes pride in their vineyard, you know the grower has their own style and it impacts the vineyard.

    Same goes for a “paint by numbers” winemaker Patrick. Oh sure, you’re a winemaker, but you’re filling in the blanks, not creating the portrait. Chefs fall in the same category often, are they creating new dishes and have a flair for the original, or are they executing the same steak, over and over again? Both are chefs by definition who approach the craft with different eyes.

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