Wine is simple, right? Plant vines, watch them grow, and when they make grapes, squish them and let Mother Nature do the rest. Well, if you did all that, I’m not sure you could call the result ‘wine,’ and I am certain you wouldn’t drink it. There are many factors, way too many to cover here, that must be seen to, or at least considered, if you want to make wine from grapes.
First you must consider natural factors–this is subject to debate and varies immensely from place to place. Which grape to plant depends on a lot of things, and only one of those things is your love for a particular grape. Climate, soil, sun, wind, rain, etc.–all of these factors combine into the controversial ‘terroir,’ that frightening term that casual wine drinkers could care less about yet most folks in the wine business fret endlessly over–and they all play a role in the grapes that thrive in your area.
Once you have chosen which grape, then you need to answer the ‘where’ question. It is easier to plant, grow and harvest grapes on a flat, fertile valley floor, but those factors can yield a particular style of wine which will be different from wine made with grapes grown on a mountain side, with fast drainage, shallow soil, meager nutrients, abbreviated sunlight.
Then consider the human factors. These are decisions a winemaker chooses to employ or not, which will influence the end result, sometimes greatly.
- Irrigation? Seems obvious, but there are sound reasons why irrigation is against the law in many European vineyards. Irrigation makes it easy for the vine, and the resulting fruit is again different than fruit produced from a vine kept under a little stress.
- Fertilization? The same principles apply.
- Green harvesting? Dropping fruit, typically before it is ripe or has gone through veraison (color change) is a practice used in many of the top vineyards in the world. The thought is that with fewer bunches, the root system is ‘feeding’ less clusters and the resulting grapes sort of concentrate the elements.
- Malo? Yes, Malolactic fermentation (or secondary fermentation) is the process of converting the malic acid in grapes into lactic acid giving the wine a completely different mouthfeel and changing completely the acid structure in the wine. This is not typically used for crisp whites like Riesling or Sauvignon Blanc, but definitely for most Chardonnays and nearly all red wines.
- Which brings us to the most controversial human factor of all: to oak or not to oak. Americans have grown up (most of us) on Californian wines, where oak is usually obvious, sometimes dominant. Should oak be used? It is expensive, especially new oak, but something as important as the cost is the result. On the good side, oak adds aromatics and flavors to wines that can accentuate or even improve the experience. It also adds some tannins to help the wine age and offers an interaction between wine and oxygen. On the downside, too much oak (who’s to say what that means?) masks the nuances in wine and can hide them all together. I suspect in some cases, the oak is used to hide defects in wines–like too much garlic in an Italian restaurant can cover up a bad chef.
So just what does make a good wine good and a bad wine bad? You!
Shayne Hebert, Wine & Spirits Sales Manager
Follow me on Twitter @abcwineshayne