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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.

  1. Hmmm… didn’t we have this same discussion vis a vis single vineyard cabernet sauvignons? You’ve seen the light!

  2. Steve – I am relieved and pleased by your findings, and am happy that you wrote about them. There is more to terroir or placeness than a patch of land. It’s also the heart, soul and dreams of the people farming the vineyard and making its wine. I think that’s why Saintsbury used the word clan – to encompass land and people.

  3. PaulG – single vineyard is not the same thing as what Steve is writing about here.

  4. Geographic origin of grapes is unquestionably, one of the two most relevant features to determine wine quality. The other is grape yield.
    Surprisingly, no kind of wine rating system, to this day, accrues the substantive factors employed in wine production.
    So, we developed an indicator/rating system called Wine Economic Value Index (that doesn’t involve any qualitative assessment and, consequently, is not intended to compete, but complement analytical rating methods) to gauge wine quality and pricing, via the quantitative evaluation of the economic factors of production (inputs), used in the grape-growing and winemaking processes.
    As we anticipated, after running several statistical tests and simulations, we found that grape origin & yield should account for more than sixty percent of our final rating number.

  5. Stephen Hare says:

    If it’s all in the vineyard, why do we need things such as sorting tables, specialized yeast strains, expensive barrels, micro-ox, de-alcing, super-red concetrate…? Some winemaking techniques can overpower any sense of terrior. How many cult wines use some/all of the above winemaking techniques and tell the consumer that the terrior of the vineyard is what justifies the high price?

    The expression goes something like “you cannot make great wines from mediocre grapes but you can make mediocre wine from great grapes.”

    My point being that, yes, the vineyard (s) can make a massive contribution to quality but it does take a skilled hand in the cellar to know what to do with them.

    Finally, will the consumers pay a premium for these specialized wines?

  6. Steve,

    Good blog topic. I like your phrase, “that a wine grown in a single place shows a unique sense of that place,” a simple explanation but to the point. Granted terroir can encompass much more than just that, but to generalize why great single vineyards are so sought after I think that does justice. Popularity of these types of wines has also created an overabundance of them in the average quality category. So what is separating them on simple terms is the “uniqueness.”

    What I think also makes a wine great as a single vineyard and truly expressing the sense of place is the willingness to learn from the vineyard from the winemaking/vineyard side and being open to the type of wine it creates. Over manipulation often shadows the real essence of terroir (not saying minimalism is the ideal route though). I believe that is key to creating a superior wine from a single vineyard, because it is often much easier to blend multiple vineyards to create a great balanced wine.

  7. Joe, you make a great point. Sometimes it does seem like a winemaker tries to impose a certain style upon the vineyard, to make a wine the winemaker hopes will appeal to the critics. And over-manipulation (especially too much oak and overripeness) usually is the result.

  8. Stephen, I look at it like this: you can have a kid who was born with fabulous genes and potential but bad parenting can thwart that kid’s possibilities. Having a great sorting table, etc. is giving your kid the best possible upbringing. As for whether consumers will pay a premium, that’s anyone’s guess. We know that these great, expensive wines have taken a hit (or we think we know) because of the economy. Will the economy recover? Will $75 wines again become popular the way they were before the recession hit? Your guess is as good as mine.

  9. Peter I’d like to see your data.

  10. Scott: “heart, soul and dreams.” I love that. Really do.

  11. Now you’re gettin it! It’s all about the vineyards. Isn’t that our job as winefolk? To capture and bring to the crushpad the pure essence from the vineyard while keeping our hands off it once it gets there. Mere shepparding the fruit through fermentation, using mostly older mature barrels, aging the proper time of 16-22 months (the way we used to do it) and bottling that fruit expression. This bottle, that piece of dirt.

    Grown, Produced and Bottled, Inc. When one entity of person has control of the cultivation of the raw material that they then process into a final product and then that same company marketed from the very site where it’s grown and produced, amazing things happen. Seamless integration with no opportunity for proverbial ball dropping as the process gets passed from one (grower) person to another (winemaker).

    There is no other industry that I know of does this very thing. It’s be like I grew cotton on a small family plantation and on that propety, I milled the cotton into highend clothing and folks came from all over the Country (world) to try on and buy the jeans.

  12. Randy–

    I love your enthusiasm for the way you make wine.

    I also happen to love LeFlaive White Burgs and barrel-aged Bordeaux, and their equivalents from California. Clearly, most of those wines get more winemaker intervention on their way to greatness than you advocate, yet to me and thousands and thousands of others, those wines have been and continue to be world-class marks. Can you imagine DRC La Tache being aged in old barrels? I can and I prefer the way Aubert du Villaine does it.

    My point is that there is no single way to make wine. Your comments are predictable at this point. So is my response.

  13. Stephen H, I’ve heard it a couple different ways, to wit:
    A great winemaker can’t make a great wine from inferior grapes, BUT even an average winemaker can make a great wine from superior grapes. In other words, the wine is really made in vineyard… and a vintner making wine from his own vineyard makes darn certain that each and every vine in that vineyard is perfect, not a cluster too many, not a vine too wet/dry, not a speck of mildew to be seen, and all done in the most ecologically friendly way possible. Vintners making premium wines from their own vineyard cut yields until they are perfect for the vineyard and terroir, do not tolerate vines less than perfect, and frankly worry about their vines as much or more than some folks love their families.

    Knowing each vine is critical to producing the perfect grape. If a vine doesn’t cut it, or a bloc doesn’t work out, it is yanked and something else is planted/grafted that WILL produce the perfect grape. At Cerro Prieto, our goal from day one was to grow the perfect grape. If you do that, the perfect wine(okay, almost perfect wine) can’t be far behind. As for yields, the French usually hang 1-2 Kg/vine or 2.2-4.4 pounds/vine. Our max is 5 lbs, and our minimum is 2 lbs. No great wines come from overcropped vineyards. The best wines are generally cropped somewhere in the parameters above, ASSUMING the terroir is perfect. Vintners are busy enough. Checking multiple vineyards to be sure they are doing the vintner’s bidding is fine, but no question, a vintner manages his own vineyard to perfection, because he is in control…and the last thing he wants is to “cheat” in his own vineyard, which would take away from the perfection he is trying to attain in his wines.

    Steve, you are correct in saying that estate grown wines are likely to be the high scorers when blind tasted. The care and consideration given one’s own vines is significantly more than the C &C given someone else’s vines. As for being able to charge more for estate grown grapes, perhaps that is so, but I think pride and knowledge that home grown grapes are “perfect”
    for ultimately making the perfect wine,
    actually is closer to the truth.

  14. Yes, I agree with a lot of the comments above (and the post itself!) and especially with Stephen who says “you cannot make great wines from mediocre grapes but you can make mediocre wine from great grapes.”
    Terroir is utterly important. I belive that terroir combined with the winemaker skill, (or even just not over-manipulating the wine!) is what distiguishes good, quality wines (and great one too of course) from the millions of industrialized, commoditized, homogenized, standardized, indistinguishable bottles of wine out there.

  15. Charlie,

    I’ll probably repeat it a few times more until eventually winemaking in CA goes a little tiny bit back to our roots. The wat my grandfather’s generation of winemaker’s did it. That is non-interventialist winemaking with the main focus of energy given out in a particular year in the vineyards allowing that vintage to be reflected in bottle. Predictabe yes, but consistent. Farming first, everything else thereafter. At least you’ll know in the future to skip over my comments as predictable as they are.

    BTW, isn’t the blog headling about like vineyards or something?

  16. Randy, I would never skip your comments. They are too passionate to ignore. I will just keep responding to them to remind you that there is no one size fits all on the road to winemaking success. I am not advocating that you change how you make wine. I am suggesting that your way is not the only way–and I pointed out a bunch of wines that do improve because of the intelligent intervention of the winemaker.

  17. Great article and right on the money. There is no
    substitute for the expression on a place. I also
    believe biodynamics is the ideally way to respect the
    expression. How could anyone who truely is proud of
    their site choose to use pesticides and herbicides.
    Why damage the microbes in the soil that are the terroir.

  18. Tim, I’m not convinced biodynamics makes better wine. It seems like more of a philsophical commitment.

  19. Tim,

    I’m into biodynamics, however being a grower, winemaker, marketer I still am having a tough time grasping onto the idea how filling an empty horn with something and then burying it improves grape quality. I’m into planting by the moons’ schedule, but again… gravity of the oceans? When I get these Q’s in the TR, I really feel at a loss. We still in this industry have yet to properly define “organic”. Biodynamics in the vineyard intrigues me to the nth degree, but no one’s really taken on the concept and put it into marketable words. you?

  20. Randy, re: the Qs in the TR, you’re probably best off keeping it very simple. If people want more details, you’ll know, and can go further. Otherwise it just kind of blows people away and might even make them wonder if you’re all there. Not a very good message!

  21. The vineyard and terrior represent step one of the winemaking process. If these two are properly matched and the results are great the next step is to let those wines shine. Many winemakers tend to over process, hence why the wines of a particular region can all taste the same. I refer to it as the Tammy Faye school of winemaking… if you paint over it enough you can make anything seem nice…and similar to the rest . If you let nature and good techniques (hands off) lead then…all of the sublteness of the wine will present it self, thus a great wine with a balance of nuance and sublty is achieved! …get as close to the vineyard as possible!!!!!!

  22. Randy–

    I recently had a long email exchange with Randall Grahm about biodynamics. Despite his many moods and imaginations, he is surprisingly down to earth (no pun intended).

    His final comment to me, “Charlie, part of it is simply a belief. It is almost a religion. Either you believe or you do not. ”

    Frankly, I find your skepticism healthy. Oliver Humbrecht told a group of us that the best thing biodynamics has done for him is make him much more in touch with his vineyards.

  23. Steve,

    Grapes purchased under a long-term contract are not “estate”. The winery must have 100% ownership or control of the vineyard.


  24. While everything terroir is integral to the development of the vine and grapes, it is, perhaps, the soil, that is at the heart and soul of the plant. The right soil with its balance of nutrients (or lack thereof), nourishes the vine and its roots. In turn, this fuels bud and leaf growth and eventually photosythesis. Photosynthesis, in turn, yields the production of sugar and oxygen and where do you think some of that sugar ends up……………yup………….in the grapes.

    If you give the vines a running start and the rest of the terroir elements are not too burdensome in any given vintage, the vineyard manager can lay the foundation for success and hand the wine batton over to the winemaker.

  25. That is non-interventialist winemaking with the main focus of energy given out in a particular year in the vineyards allowing that vintage to be reflected in bottle. Predictabe yes, but consistent. Farming first, everything else thereafter. At least you’ll know in the future to skip over my comments as predictable as they are.
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