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Good Libations: What makes a vineyard great?

Good Libations: What makes a vineyard great?

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I suspect many readers have experienced farming recently when they used their COVID-19 stimulus checks to plant tomatoes and vegetables. I just harvested some Red Torch tomatoes that were beautiful but had split open thanks to massive rain the day before.

Such are the vicissitudes of Mother Nature.

Grape growers, too, are at the mercy of weather, but over time, with trial and error, some have mastered the conditions of their vineyards. Soil composition, altitude, vineyard situation and vineyard management techniques all play a role in growing grapes. Great wine starts in the vineyard.

The French word Terroir encapsulates all aspects of the growing conditions for a particular winegrowing site. The definition includes climate, soil, terrain and tradition. Each vineyard has its own climate — hot, cool, windy, moist or dry. The soil composition contributes to the flavors that find their way into the grapes. Terrain can vary widely, from a flat valley floor to a steep hillside facing the sun. Traditions apply to older vineyards where time and experience have taught vignerons the best cultivation techniques and which varieties of grapes are best suited for a particular vineyard. I will discuss a few distinct examples.

Catena, one of Argentina’s best wines, features vineyards located in the Tupungato regions in the Uco Valley at the foot of the Andes Mountains. The vineyards are situated in a virtual desert with very little rainfall and high altitude. Ancient irrigation canals direct water from mountain snowmelt runoff to the vineyards in a controlled environment.

Catena’s premier vineyard is the Adrianna Vineyard situated at almost 5,000 feet of elevation. Their studies reveal that sunlight is significantly more intense at that altitude than at sea level. The grapes develop thicker skin to protect themselves from the sun’s rays, resulting in a darker and more tannic Malbec red wine.

Millions of years ago, volcanos laid down a subsoil, and then glaciers deposited a layer of white calcium rocks on top. The result is a vineyard with excellent drainage, so when heavy rain falls, the water flows away quickly and the grapes do not split like my tomatoes did. Even with the intense sunlight, the temperatures are cool, due to the altitude. The coolness slows ripening, preserving acids and moderating sugar production. For this reason, Chardonnay grown here has the perfect balance of citrusy acidity, mineral notes and rich fruit flavors. The vineyard is subject to morning mists, which promulgate friendly yeast, and the wine is naturally fermented with these, in contrast to most winemakers who pitch a known strain of yeast. Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon from these vineyards are dark and complex with a great depth of flavors and moderate tannins.

For a completely different scenario, let’s examine Germany’s Mosel River valley, home of some of the world’s best white Riesling wines. The area is located so far north that it’s the upper limit of where wine-worthy grapes can ripen to maturity. The vineyards are located on steep slopes just above the river, and many are strewn with blue-gray slate stones. Well-situated vineyards receive sunlight reflected off the river, which helps ripen the grapes in the cool climate.

The world’s steepest vineyard, Calmont, is located here, where 60-degree slopes necessitate the use of a vertical monorail to assist with harvesting the grapes, a challenging task. Riesling is noted for translating the soil flavors into the finished wine. Tasters often detect notes of slate and minerals in these wines.

One of the most famous vineyards, Urziger, Wurzgarten, literally means “spice garden” located near the town of Urzig. The wine is noted for intense stone fruit flavors, spice and minerality, offset with zingy acidity. The best German wines are able to achieve good ripeness, avoiding the addition of unfermented juice or sugar.

No discussion of Terroir would be complete without a look at Italy’s Brunello di Montalcino. The town of Montalcino is located on a hill about 1,850 feet above sea level, where the climate is warmer and drier than the neighboring vineyards of Chianti. The area is open, leading to good air circulation, which dries the grapes, and cool evenings, which aids ripening.

The Sangiovese grape clone Grosso is used here, where it performs better than anywhere else in the world. The soil is a complex mixture of volcanic schist, limestone, clay and marl. According to historical records, wine has been produced here since the 14th century.

Winemakers have developed techniques over time that produce optimum results. The crushed grapes are allowed an extended maceration time to extract color and tannin, and the wine is aged in large Slavonian oak containers that allow for complexity without imbuing much oak flavor. I find that Brunello is rich and mellow with an unmistakable earthy loam component, reflecting the soil that nurtured the grapes.

Saving the best for last, we will now study Le Montrachet, one of the most revered vineyards in the world. Le Montrachet is located on a treeless hilltop in the Burgundy region of France, where a distance of a few feet can mean a different soil composition. The hill is shaped like a folded envelope with the east-facing side in the village of Puligny and the Southeast side located in Chassagne. Montrachet means “bald hill.”

According to wine expert Pierre Rovani, the area just above is called Chevalier Montrachet and the area just below is Batard Montrachet. Chevalier has lots of limestone producing linear, focused, crystalline wines, and Batard at the bottom contains a rich mixture of clay and soils, producing fat, plump and dense wines. Over time, alluvium has washed down so the middle achieves a perfect balance of both. This is Le Montrachet, the most expensive real estate on the planet.

There is a road through the middle of the vineyard that historically was the main road to Paris. When Napoleon’s soldiers marched through the area, they were required to stop, face the Le Montrachet vineyard, and salute. That’s an impressive achievement for Chardonnay!

According to Rovani, the French have a word Aerien, meaning ethereal and airy, to describe the wine. The wine is noted for complexity and mineral notes. If this description sounds enticing enough to purchase some, I found a bottle of 2005 Domaine de la Romanee-Conti Montrachet on the internet for $8,695. Since the vineyard is tiny, this shows how supply versus demand determines price.

There are countless other unique vineyard situations around the world, including some in California and Washington. The study of these is what makes wine so interesting.

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