Well, besides divine intervention, the art of making a quality wine is a lot harder than you would probably imagine. If you were as experimental as I was in college, blissfully adding sugar and Welch’s Grape Juice together in same parts sugar and grape juice along with Champaign yeast, you learned a lesson in how not to make a libation. This particular concoction was something in between hi- octane cough syrup, turpentine, and a bomb; and the mess it made took what little fun it was to create right out of the equation- and OMG what a headache!
Winemakers today are thankfully much more well versed in modern alchemy than I was, with most embedding themselves into many years of higher education at UC Davis (the oenologist’s Mecca ) then the years in the wineries working under the masters.
With all of this education, you will find that there are still quite a few ways to actually “screw-up” the process of making good wine.
First the fruit!
There have been many domestic “wars” that have gone on for centuries; under the table haggling over “grape rights”. If a winery is lucky enough to own its parcels and farm its own grapes, then to the victors go the spoils, for they have complete control over all vineyard aspects. But if you are a new or struggling wine- maker buying grapes from an upcoming vineyard which keeps getting better fruit year after year, chances are the farmer starts holding onto the grapes for his or her own winemaking, all just when you have tweaked everything just right. It happens more than you would think.
We have seen gifted young winemakers create a spectacular wine from contract growers on a yearly basis. We have seen those same growers see the potential profits in making their own wine. They already have great fruit, so why not go direct and make it themselves? The quality most of time (but not always) can hang on the vine a little too long! The learning curve can be brutal for both parties.
But back to the fruit. The quality of the grapes depends upon: of course the soil and climate (terroir – explained in long explicit detail in my other writings), the clones in which the vines started from, shorter or longer growing periods, and the grafting of the clones- where sometimes the lower half of the vines are grafted for their ability to grow in particular and sometimes challenging soil conditions of that micro plot, with the upper half best grafted for flavor, etc.
The best vines have been caressed, if not babied. There is an exacting method in the removal of leaves and buds by hand-pruning the vines; too many buds = too much dilution in the fruit. Not enough = we’re eating at Taco Bell on Thanksgiving! Hand pruning over mechanical pruning is really the demarcation line here in the (chalk) sand. Labor is more expensive than a weed whacker – so is quality wine.
Then there is aerating and fertilizing of the soil; all the while subtly torturing or harassing the vine just enough so the plant puts its energy into grape production and not too much in leaf production. There is truly an art to that one! A grower will work with the good winemakers and might water the vineyard at the exact moment to “charge up” the vine without effecting the grapes. Again, an art, not a machine.
Where a winemaker accumulates the most grey hair is at harvest- this can be anything from a fun smooth couple weeks to a outright ongoing nightmare. It’s enough to drive them to drinking beer! The exact moment must coincide with the winemakers vision of what he or she must have in the form of sugar and acid levels along with the correct maturation of the grape itself. A couple enemies of the winemakers are rain for mould and saturation of the fruit, too much heat or cold weather for over or under ripening, lack of labor because on the same day every other winery is picking, flocks of birds mowing down the perfect vines, the black plague etc. Here is where a little of that divine intervention might be helpful.
In the Western US and now even in France, if the fruit stays on the vine too long or if it matures too quickly, the more the sugar/flavor ratio gets to be running towards Robert Parker’s idyllic “fruit bombs”- with massive flavor and bigger alcohol headaches. Personally I and many others prefer a slightly earlier picking, a more balanced wine with lower alcohol, especially in Pinot Noir and Cabernets. Amen. Ok, I’ll get off my pulpit.
There you have a very basic overview in the first part of the series of “What Does it Take to Create Quality Pinot Noir Wine”.
Patrick Hurley is a wine merchant and has a varietal specific Pinot Noir website