What it takes to make good wine

May 5, 2014 by John Brown

Try as I might, I can never comprehend more than just rudimentary mathematical calculations. I do know simple math and can recite my multiplication tables (but not beyond nine times nine) so I am able to function fairly well in this increasingly complex world.

Most of us want simple answers to the subjects or hobbies that pique our interest. Take wine for example. I am often asked to disclose the most important factor in producing good wine.

Well, among the plethora of qualitative components that must be present to produce a good bottle of wine, it is difficult to single out just one as the most important. So I’ll focus on two basic conditions that must exist for good wine to be made.

In my opinion, the two most important influences are the geographic location of the vineyard and the weather. Assuming these two variables are in place, then other influences such as soil composition, topography, orientation of the vineyard to the sun and a whole host of additional esoteric factors come into play.

You don’t have to be a horticulturist to know it’s impossible to cultivate a vineyard at the North Pole, in Death Valley or at the top of Mount Everest. We all know that grapes require a moderate climate in order to grow and ripen to full maturity before being turned into wine.

What, then, is more critical to the production of good wine? The vineyard location or the weather? The obvious answer is both, but reality is a bit fuzzier. For example, take the world famous appellations of Bordeaux and Burgundy in France.

The best wines from these two regions are among the most expensive on earth, some of which cost thousands dollars for a single bottle. The French proclaim loudly that wines produced in these places are superior because of the soil in the respective geographic locations.

What they don’t tell you is that less than five out of every 10 vintages is average to awful in quality. Why? Simply put: Mother Nature. Weather in both Bordeaux and (particularly) Burgundy can be less than ideal for grape growing.

A perfect year can quickly morph into disaster when a sudden hailstorm in the summer or torrential rains during harvest wreaks havoc on the vineyards. Just this past vintage, hailstorms in July and August decimated many vineyards in Burgundy.

Sunny days don't insure good wine

Sunny days don’t always insure good wine

Conversely, those in California, South America (Chile and Argentina) and Southeast Australia tout the consistently good weather as the reason for the outstanding wines they produce. Weather is usually not an issue in these regions. Yet, too much of a good thing (e.g. long, hot growing seasons) can result in a vintage of out of balance, insipid and with overly alcoholic wines.

So how do winemakers in the most prestigious appellations around the wine world deal with an imperfect geographic location or intemperate weather conditions? A lot of different ways actually.

For years, wine makers in California struggled to make decent pinot noir and consistently failed. It was widely held that the state was just too warm to successfully produce this fickle grape, which requires a long, cool growing season.

Then wineries began planting the grape in cooler locations and using rootstock from Burgundy. Consequently, by adapting their vineyard practices to what the grape required, California has been making excellent pinot noir for the last thirty years.

In Bordeaux and Burgundy, growers and wine makers now use advanced weather forecasting to protect their vines and to know exactly when to harvest. In addition, they employ new world techniques in the winery to improve the quality of their wines. And Voila (that means “hot damn” in these parts), they are able to mitigate some of the most vexing problems.

So, the take away is to do a little homework before you go on a wine-buying spree. Check out vintage reports and tasting notes for the wines you are interested in, particularly those like Burgundy, that require a serious investment. You can also surf the Internet to get the latest information.

Wine Recommendations:

2012 Kiona Cabernet Sauvignon ($27) – From Washington State, this is a perfectly balanced cabernet with medium tannins that should keep getting better for years to come. Delicious now with flavors of cassis and blackberries, I suggest decanting the wine for two hours and pairing it to a grilled strip steak that has been rubbed with kosher salt and ground black pepper.

2013 Charles and Charles Rose ($14) – Also from Washington State, this salmon-colored Rhone-like rose blend is dry, delicate and infused with strawberry and cherry flavors. This Columbia Valley beauty is just the right bottle to sip on the porch or at a picnic with a slice of honey glazed ham.

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