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Man, Wine, and Nature

By |  June 29 2011

I have spent most of my professional life trying to understand the relationship between taste and place-a relationship that is far too deeply entrenched in European wine tradition for anyone but a complete philistine to ignore it. Thirty years, and hundreds of vineyards and wine growers, later, I am still looking for answers. But I am certain of one thing at least: Crypto-religious thinking serves only to confuse the issue. Worse still is the pseudoscientific babble and waffle that seems to be so dear to Americans and Brits-something that is pure anathema to your ordinary consumer.

Our common starting premise is unassailable: A named wine from a given vineyard site has the taste of the land that produced it. That taste is handed down through generations of winemakers and is recognized with varying degrees of precision by generations of consumers. What’s more, that taste can be communicated from person to person, regardless of differences in human perception that alter sensory appreciation from individual to individual. It is the variables in our perception of flavor that are the most difficult issue for a non-scientist to grasp. Perception divides into three distinct stages: first, sensory input; then the formation of images in the brain; and finally, the verbal articulation of those images. What we perceive, how we perceive it, and how we express it depend, in equal measure, on taste and language.

All of this is complicated stuff, and I leave it to people far better qualified than I am to sort it out. As for what creates the natural flavors in wine, this is entirely down to natural factors: vines, soil, climate, and human skills (man being just another natural factor). At this level, it’s so much simpler than the cliché-ridden drivel that the press would have us believe.

Call me arrogant, but I wish I could just banish such stuff from these pages forever. Let me say it again: Wine is a combination of vine, soil, climate, fermentation, and human expertise. No single element is more important than the other. What matters is the chain of activities- random events included-that link these elements together.

Let us consider each element in turn, starting with the vine. The vine is a plant, a living thing with its own genetic makeup, more endowed with genes than humans are, and with particular nutritional requirements.

Too much attention is paid to what vines absorb through their roots- water, nutrients, and trace (that is, negligible) minerals. Not enough attention is paid to what they absorb through their leaves via photosynthesis. It is this that drives fruit formation, sugar concentration and flavor development and is sure to send hard-core geologists and die-hard terroir fans running for cover, back to the department of prehistory and geological cartography where they belong. In addition to varietal characteristics and the type of compost used, two other factors are outstandingly important: the growing conditions in any given vintage (annual temperatures, sunlight exposure, and rainfall) and the particular aspect and location of the vines (a nod to the Burgundian climat principle, which emphasizes aspect and site more than soil).

The fruit is where it all starts. The second stage is fermentation, which contributes to the taste of wine but does not define it. This may come as a shock to gullible sensibilities, but fermentation is a stage that should influence taste as little as possible. The agent of fermentation – in this case, yeast – merely serves to bring out the potential in the fruit, and that inevitably means expressing its origins. Terroir, in the broad sense of the word, resides in the fruit, not in the yeast, not even in the "indigenous" yeasts that are naturally present in the grape. This completely negates the Byzantine debate about the incompatibility of indigenous yeasts with selected "exogenous" yeasts (assuming we are talking about neutral, high-performance strains, and not commercial yeasts with specific aromatic profiles). As long as indigenous yeasts do the job, all is well and good. But not all of them do.

Some actually kill the wine, wiping out all trace of the terroir, origin, and climat. This is where man must take over from nature, stepping in to prevent such wanton destruction, making nature more civilized through a process of winemaking that is hugely demanding in terms of observation and judgment. Most of the time, everything goes smoothly and winemakers follow a minimalist approach, interfering as little as possible. Great wines are often made this way by modest people who claim merely to work in the service of their vineyard – though in my experience, this is mostly a pious pretense.

A great many crucial decisions, in fact, hinge on precise human intervention: when to harvest; whether or not to destalk the berries; deciding the ideal ratio of cuvée volume to tank volume; choosing how long to ferment and how to regulate fermentation; managing tannin extraction in red wines or the balance of oxidation and reduction in white wines; deciding whether or not to use wood; deciding what size of barrels to use, how to build them, the source of the wood; the duration of aging; the system of bottling; and so on, and so on.

Savoir-faire, intuition, ethics, discipline, precision, sang-froid – you need many personal qualities to make a great wine. And that’s not to mention a precise sense of taste, because many decisions can only be made at the wine-tasting stage. So, I understand why more and more producers feel a need to consult advisers before they make these decisions. It is easy to scoff at the influence of guru-style enologists. But if a cuvée is held back by incompetence, stubbornness, or routine, then it is often the intervention of an enologist that saves the day. And conversely, it is often intelligent wine growers who rescue such illustrious advisers from the perils of an all-too-human narcissism. And what about wine journalists in all of this? No, they do not really shape public taste, as myth suggests.

In a press that is ever less idealistic and militant, they just do their modest best to popularize wine in an intelligent fashion – not just those famously great wines that the countless worshippers of the golden calf treat like spoiled children, but honestly made wines from vineyards all around the globe. And they’ve got their work cut out for them…

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