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Slippery Vinous Slopes

By |  June 6 2007

Practices in the viticultural academy may themselves rely on preconceptions of mythic proportions, but that is a subject for another occasion. It is a fruitful enough enterprise to focus attention on talk of wine and vines outside the ivy-covered walls.

One fecund fallacy is not among the ancient classics but brings to mind the "slippery slope"-an argument that refuses to recognize a stopping point. The pattern at hand could be dubbed "why stop?" If a thing is good, then more of the same is better.

If less is better, then still less is better still. Whatever can be quantified risks succumbing to this fallacy. And its appeal- ludicrous though this seems on reflection- is as pervasive in matters vinous as it is prevalent in politics and public policy.

Exhibit A: Yields, as commonly expressed in hectoliters per hectare or tons to the acre. Leaving aside this dubious metric (vines, after all-not surface areas-are what bear fruit), the lower the number, the more impressed fellow growers, consumers, or wine writers are expected to be- and usually are.

One ought readily to grant the germ of truth from which a veritable myth of low yields has grown. With allowances for the proclivities of a given variety or terroir, yields above a certain level will represent more than the vines can ripen and imbue with sufficient flavor to have aesthetic merit. And maximum yields are manifestly set by most controlling legal authorities to benefit the bottom line of less scrupulous wine growers.

Yields higher than 40hl/ha in Burgundy’s Côte d’Or, although routinely permitted, seldom conduce to distinctively delicious Chardonnays or Pinots. Surely fewer outstanding Burgundy wines are cropped at 35-40hl/ha than at 30-35. But does it follow that 25 would be better… or 20 better still? Read or listen to most growers, consumers, and journalists, and one would think so. In less misleading terms, imagine that a vine is bearing five clusters of fruit. Would the resultant wine automatically be better for the plant’s having fewer hungry bunches to feed? No.

Any viticulturalist will tell you that the best results are achieved when the vine and its crop load are in balance. The distinct possibility that "balance" cannot be metabolically and operationally defined, but possesses an irreducibly normative conceptual core, does not vitiate its importance nor the insight to be gained by considering the many factors-exposure, drainage, age of vine, health of vine, canopy management, shoot positioning, trellising, vine treatments, ground cover, berry size (the list is almost limitless)-that determine what is best for the vine and for quality. If a wine is praised for having originated in "minuscule yields of 15hl/ha," it could be that for the extremely old, decrepit vines in question, that represents a balanced load. But it could just as easily indicate that the vines are genuinely diseased or poorly managed-hardly recommendations for the resultant wine.

One might ask: "What experienced, quality-conscious grower would be taken in by this fallacy?" Celebrated Nahe vintner Helmut Dönnhoff is one. In the waning 1990s, for the first time in his recollection or that of his revered postwar mentors, noticeably high alcohol was becoming a real concern in dry Riesling from top sites, while garnering wines of the delicacy, subtle sweetness, and sheer drinkability associated with the term Kabinett was becoming impossible in these same sites, or only at the price of early picking and immature flavors. Dönnhoff says it suddenly hit him that he had reflexively taken yield reduction to a counterproductive if not downright deleterious extreme. In the pursuit of excellence, he had encouraged his vines along a path where accumulation of sugar outruns that of flavor. If this is true of an iconic "coolclimate" vintner, how much more so must it be of lesser talents in warmer climes?

Apropos sugar and picking dates, their measurement offers countless illustrations of the "Why stop?" fallacy. The reverence paid to degrees Baumé, Oechsle, or Brix still recalls a time when wine was valued more for its nutritional than its aesthetic value. Recent recognition that too-rapid accumulation of grape sugar is becoming a worldwide problem may at last put paid to time-honored reliance on the refractometer.

But it has merely shifted the field of potentially fallacious inference. The refrain "just a little longer…" morphs into a mantra of "long hang-time," and picking date becomes the new end-in-itself. Germans are only the best known of those to have idolized both Oechsle and late harvest-or as Dönnhoff puts it, "this notion that Auslese is better than Spätlese. ‘Get just a little fatter, just a little fatter…’ As if just a little more sauce and the dish will taste even better" (or perhaps a few more raisins in the sauce?).

Ironically, when it comes to finished wines, there is a fashionable fixation in some quarters of Champagne and among Germany’s Riesling growers on the lowest possible residual sugar as a touchstone of quality and frankness. Even here, there is a grain of truth. Residual sugar can be used to cover flaws, and any vintner who can render a balanced, sensually satisfying Champagne Extra Brut or Riesling Trocken of but two or three grams has pulled off quite an act-even if it is only an act. "Seek balance!" Surely that is always the right rejoinder. One imagines a seesaw. But that picture, too, has led to vinous perdition.

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