What Makes Great Wine?
Like anything subjective this is an absurd question.
It's as if you were turning up to a blind date and the woman you meet bombards you with her list of questions. What's your favourite movie? What's your favourite food? If you were stranded on a deserted island with one other person who would it be?
All valid questions , but if you had not already run for the hills, everyone's answer would be different and to gauge the “right answer” for the suitor you would need a degree in psychology. Let alone restricting your answers to a single response.So to with wine one persons Chateau Margaux is another persons overly drying red wine.
So to break it down despite the subjectivity clause, what is great? And how does the fermented grape juice rise above it's humble beginnings?
To be great things need to be above the ordinary. Really Sherlock!!
Ordinary wine is simple, lacks intensity, easy to drink but hard to savour.
It is defined mainly by what it lacks; balance , length, texture, structure, aroma, bouquet, mouth feel, complexity, varietal definition , typicality, terroir and above all flavour ( I know that some of these terms sound like a construction sites glossary but in a way great wines have layers).
So how do you rise above and make extraordinary wine?
Well there are two types of 'Great' wine. The wine on the page and the wine in the glass.
The wine on the page is about pedigree, awards, tradition, price, fashion, marketing hype, capital expenditure, press and scale. Some are valid guides to 'Great' wine but by no means infallible. For at the end of the day these things can fail to equate to the most important criteria. GREAT WINE IN THE GLASS.
Great wine in the glass takes you to another place the floral,citrus and honeyed toast of an aged riesling, the complex flavours of a great Bordeaux blend that gives you violets and cassis framed in a firm savoury elegance, that changes in the glass as you get towards the bottom of the bottle. Great wine when matched well with food can heighten the experience of both. Where the flavours and characters of the food dance with the wine on your tongue. To pass these things off as wine snobbery ( more about wine on the page), really means that you have yet to experience such delights. If this is not your thing cool. But if you are interested in food and wine it means you have some fun things to discover.
Making 'Great' wine comes down to capturing something in the bottle that speaks to you.
That makes this wine much more enjoyable and memorable than what you normally quaff.
A winemaker/vigneron/vintner does this by bringing an expertise and passion to what thy do. For at every stage of the grape growing to wine making to maturation there are forks in the road where choices can be made to dictate the quality and style of the wine. What choices are made and how they are executed ultimately dictates the quality and greatness of the wine.
These days many wine industry people comment on how wine is made in the vineyard. This is partially true. For great wine to be made the grapes need to have the right balance of acidity, tannin, sugar, flavour and colour for the style of wine intended. And to do this the vineyard needs to provide the right climate, soil and management to deliver the grapes in these optimum conditions.
How is this done?
#Do your research.
#Matching climate to particular grape varieties.
Planting the right grapevines in the right site can make a huge difference to the balance of the grapes. Their are optimum conditions for temperature and moisture status for particular grape varieties, And more suitable aspects and soils. Sites within a region or even a vineyard can be quite different.
# Don't rely heavily on so called experts.
Many 'experts' do not have local knowledge. You will gain much more insight into a site or a region by talking to locals who have been growing crops for years than relying on the high flying consultants for advice. In my experience many 'gurus' bring unintended bias to the table.
# Growing grapes for yield versus quality
Some grape varieties have a more forgiving tolerance for higher yields than others when it comes to delivering quality. However, generally speaking 'Great' wine comes from vineyards in balance where the leaf to fruit ratio is kept in check either naturally or by management practices.
Growing grapes where acid,sugar and yield are delivered is very different than growing for flavour and balance.
# Management practices
Techniques to optimise the conditions for ripening the fruit can delivery quality into the winery. Consistant, clean, ripe balanced fruit can be achieved based on manipulating canopies and soil conditions and the timing of certain practices for light infiltration, cropping level, disease control and microclimate stability. Practices on one site vineyard or region may not be suitable in a different place. Know your site.
Once the vineyard delivers optimal fruit on the vine it is quite critical to harvest this fruit in the right window of opportunity and at the right temperature and urgency and condition so as not lose any characters.
The process once in the winery takes on many avenues depending upon the style of wine. But certain criteria hold true for making 'Great' wine.
# Know your fruit
An understanding of the vineyard and where and how it has grown is almost essential. Some winemakers may get away with a lack of familiarity but will not be able to make truly great wine year in and year out from this vineyard without being familiar. Certainly to make improvements they will need to have a control from which to tweek management practices. A communicative and open relationship with a vineyard manager on the same page if a larger operation would be critical.
Knowing the level of ripeness and how that equates to wine style. Let the fruit reach it's full potential in complementing it with the right techniques to get the best out of what you have. Particularly in regards to acidity, extraction, oak, tannin,alcohol potential,colour, flavour , definition and mouth feel.
# Know the potential
Get a handle on the age ability and maturation spectrum of the wines your making and how certain techniques are more suitable to making extraordinary wine for particular wine styles.Taste as many different styles as possible.
Experience in how wines age from everywhere as well as your own vineyard and region is helpful in choosing which path to follow.
# Find your Niche
While having a burgudian like Pinot Noir you may get a following. Be different, don't follow the crowd. Do what you do well. Right now alternative varieties are all the rage and are a point of difference. But if everyone has them they lose their panache. By matching the site suitability and marketability of a wine with your passion and uniqueness you will make great wine that should sell. But don't sacrifice the last two for the first two as then you become just another winery/food technologist. Truly 'Great ' wine is unique even within one region.
# Bring passion to the table
# Do your homework
To truly deliver extraordinary wine you have to have a full arsenal of wine making techniques at your disposal. If you are making traditional wines in a traditional region and are following traditional methods. Understand why they work so that when troubleshooting you become a valuable part of the team. Innovation in traditional areas puts you ahead of the game. In a region where more modern processes are followed don't be afraid of low tech old world solutions but understand what they bring to the table. For the minimalist low interventionist organic winemaker. Being hands off requires a very extensive knowledge of the risks involved. Like Miles Davis, you have to know all the notes before knowing what not to play. To pretend otherwise is just a sloppy approach and speaks more of marketing than true intent or even worse ignorance. Great wine doesn't have a caveat it speaks for itself.
# experiment and give yourself options
Try new approaches within the scope of doing your homework and give yourself options to blend. Learn to adapt to what the vintage delivers.
Maintain a focus while still giving yourself options to create. Don't try to be all things to all men.
Make something you are proud of.
# Goes without saying it must have the 'BIG YUMS' factor.
Doing a vintage with an English bloke who used to work at Odd bins I remember him saying that this wine has the 'BIG YUMS' factor.
The wine in the end has to taste delicious for the style intended. The enjoyability factor is vital. Would you want to drink a bottle of this wine. Don't let artefact get in the way.
Finally 'Great' wine needs to be shared. For to truly appreciate it, you need to see how others react and how you react in their company. Sure you can truly appreciate it on your own. But the experience will be or the more richer in good company. I do stress good company, don't waste it on your relative that only drinks Rum. You need to have a people filter and that is probably the hardest choice knowing who to share it with.
Still it's not like your pulling teeth.