As with all religions, winemaking has its myths and fables, its mainstream congregations and its heretic sects, its prophets and its sycophantic followers. And, like Christianity, winemaking has its Holy Trinity. But instead of the mystery of Father, Son and Holy Ghost, winegrowing is constantly pondering the relationship around Terroir, Vine and Winemaker. Everything boils down to those three and how they work together.
If you get into a conversation with any winemaker – regardless of gender, age, race, native language or national origin – 99 percent of them will recite almost word for word what has become winemaker’s Holy Creed: “Wine is made in the Vineyard.” Or the currently most-recited creedal variant: “I’m just trying to make a wine that speaks of place.”
And they seem to actually believe it.
If only winemaking could be all that simple.
Let’s begin with Terroir. In its virgin state, it just lies there, motionless, year after year. It has no volition of its own. It refuses to bat an eyelash, to flinch or even groan when people walk across it or dig holes into it. It cannot shout out, “Stop this nonsense.” It just lies there, submitting to the winemaker. “I’m yours. Do with me what you will.” In this morality play, terroir has very few lines to speak. It is what it is.
Enter the Winemaker. When faced with a vineyard for the first time, or especially when faced with an unplanted, virgin prospective vineyard, a winemaker will – and please permit me here to momentarily switch metaphors – try to read his (or her) new terroir the way a golfer will try to read a long and difficult putt about to be attempted. The winemaker will consult his playing partners, especially those who have planted grapes nearby and know the course, perhaps even call in a teaching pro to give advice. Then he will ask his caddy – a famous consultant – about what grape varieties and rootstocks he should pull out of his bag.
And our winegrower will keep trying to make this same putt, vintage after vintage, tweaking his bag of clubs and consulting with consultants (perhaps even switching gurus and winemaking orthodoxies), refining his technique on the practice range (winery) and shuffling what’s in his bag of clubs – constantly changing clones and rootstocks and the way he prunes, trellises and irrigates,
Then one fine day, if our golfing winemaker and his team have the skill, enough money, patience and a great support system, he might eventually ace that putt, dead-center perfect. He has finally read the terroir correctly, according to his interpretation.
And now, if our winemaker has attracted the right following, the virtual crowd surrounding the virtual green will go wild, flashing scores of 97, 98 – wait! – that one’s a perfect 100. Then, when our winemaker hoists the trophy, his speech will be as canned as a PGA pro, “You know, I couldn’t have done it without playing this perfect course with this perfect green. You know, the hole location this vintage was perfect. Any idiot could have made that putt.”
Finally, enter the third entity in the trinity – the Vine. While the winemaker is wedded to his terroir, and says all the right things about his bride to his friends and family, he secretly lusts after the grapevine. She is his mistress of intrigue lurking in plain sight. Her sinewy, willowing limbs excite him. Her robe of verdant leaves speaks of hidden delights. He lovingly watches the clusters morph into bottles of wine-to-be.
And why not be infatuated? Unlike terroir, which is the winemaker’s unresponsive fait accompli that he has spent thousands of dollars to purchase and to make look respectable, a winemaker has an unlimited choice of grape varieties to choose from, as well as clones and cultivars within these varieties and rootstocks that work best with this blessed piece of earth.
Further, he and the vine can have a conversation.
Winemaker: “Which kind of trellising would you like this season – a little more sun, a little less sun. Tell me your thoughts.”
Vine: “Since you did such a great job of protecting me from frost this spring – you big, brave winemaker – I’ll let you choose. But do you think I’m getting too many clusters? We could do some cluster reduction, ya know.”
Winemaker: “Sure thing. But tell me about bugs? Any problem with bugs?”
Vine: “Not yet. But I am getting a little dry. This dumb terroir is sucking the life out of me!”
Winemaker: “Maybe you could use a little more exercise – sink those roots down into those rock crevices, and grow, baby, grow!”
Plus, he knows if his affair with the vine de saison doesn’t work out, it’s cheaper to divorce a vine than it is to abandon the terroir and go buy another one. So, goodbye, Merlot, hellooo Cab Franc! And if our winemaker figures all the angles, he may just decide to T-bud over to save expenses and three lost vintages.
Which comes to Morris’s Blasphemy – “It is just as important – if not more important – to select the right variety of vine and rootstock as it is to select the right terroir.” If you love Pinot Noir and you have some prime property in the northern suburbs of Beaune, then you are one lucky man with great terroir for Pinot Noir, proven by centuries of trial and error. And you are more likely to make good-to-great wine than to screw up.
But if you want to grow Vin de France Cabernet Sauvignon on the same Côtes d’Or soil, then you face the Truth of Terroir: “To be great, a terroir must have the right grapes planted on it as well as the intelligent stewardship of the winemaker who farms it.” Terroir is what it is, take it or leave it. Vines will strain to give you everything their DNA will permit. But if you want Pinot vines to produce grapes that taste like Cab, good luck.
It is currently in vogue for winemakers to say they want to have as little intervention in the winemaking process as possible. And that makes total sense. Whether it’s practicing medicine, planning a vacation or making wine, the more you anticipate problems and take measures as early as possible to prevent them, the more likely there will have a happy ending. Retrofitting shouldn’t be a lifestyle.
So, if the winemaker – that’s right, the winemaker – during the season makes intelligent decisions that affect the vines, while always keeping the terroir in mind, there naturally should be fewer things to be done in the winery. But all too often when the weather refuses to cooperate – too much rain, too little rain, too cold, too hot – the winemaker will have to make what are euphemistically referred to as “corrections,” even in the most hands-off cellar. Longer or shorter ferments and macerations, more acid or more sugar, more oak or less oak.
Remember, there are dozens of decision points that need to be handled by the winemaker after the grapes are picked and before the wine is bottled, especially if blends are involved. How these decisions are made – and not only the inherent qualities of the grapes that came from the terroir – will determine, to put it crassly, whether a wine gets more 90s than 89s, more 100s than 97s.
In short, whether the winemaker chooses the terroir or whether he inherits it as a given, the choice of vine is the key to whether he even has a possibility of success. And how he manages that relationship between vine and terroir will give him grapes that may enhance that chance of success. And what he does in the cellar will ensure it. Or screw it up.
The acid test of the importance of the winemaker and decisions he makes takes place annually in the vineyards of Burgundy where a dozen or more winemakers make wines from the same hallowed grand cru vineyards. Taste a few of them in the same vintage from the same terroir at Hospices de Beaune or some other such event and you will see just how much difference the winemaker makes, even on great Pinot Noir terroirs.
Why the pushback on the part of winemakers to recognize they are the most important member of the Trinity? I’m not sure. Perhaps they have a fear of recognizing their own power and where that might lead. Perhaps they fear the sin of pride.
Or perhaps the only way they can make great wines is in believing it’s not in their hands to do so.