Wine Quality: Talking the Elusive Vin de Terroir Blues
I’ve been asked to talk about the somewhat abstract notion of “quality,” as it pertains to wine. Of course, every winemaker or winery owner thinks about or should be thinking about quality in some sense, but I believe that any discussion of “quality” should have a context and arise from a larger value system or a philosophical aspiration. I tend to think about “quality” in a very immediate existential sense, i.e. it is that elusive thing you must figure out how to express in your wine, lest you perish rather sooner than later. Certainly, these days, it seems that unless you are on an upward trajectory of wine quality, you are likely doomed (or in my instance, dooned) to the slag-heap of wine history. The only other alternative, it seems, is to find an ascendant rapper who happens to be particularly sweet on your sacchariferously over-achieving red wine and let nature take its course. (I’m sorry; that’s a pretty unfair comment, at least to rappers.)
I suppose that many wine producers may generally have a slightly different conception of “quality” than I have; when I was a student at Davis “quality” was a bit of a slippery entity, the ghost in the machine, in a sense, and at least by implication seemed to have more to do with consistency, reproducibility, and possibly, absence of defect. As winemakers, we may imagine that we are attempting to create something like a Platonic ideal of excellence—balance, complexity, and perhaps even “intensity” (whatever the heck that means) but often this idealized form is rather tricky to define—remember Jancis Robinson and Robert Parker’s slight difference of opinion (“Jancis, you ignorant slut!”) about the infamous bottle of Chateau Pavie.
At the very least, notions of “quality” seem mutable over time and are somewhat prone to fashion, witness the slight discontinuity of wine style of Continuum Estate with respect to the Mondavi Cabs of an earlier era.
I would argue that “quality” in wine is something like the articulate expression of real distinctiveness (in a good way, of course). Having said that, one very disturbing trend I’ve observed is the alarming degree of sameness in many California wines, especially in the larger production, price sensitive segments. It is as if there had been a secret conference (a kind of Yalta Summit on wood chips) that set out guidelines as to what are the acceptable and unacceptable attributes in wine. I’m not wishing to be disrespectful, but larger wine companies do tend to be a little bit conservative, shall we say, and often, considerations of “quality” can be another way of saying, “How can we offend the least number of consumers?” In fairness, if you are driven mostly by economics, maybe offending the fewest number of customers and using your marketing clout to establish product differentiation is a reasonable strategy for the short-term, but I’m not convinced it really works so well for the long term.
I would propose that we think about wine quality in a somewhat different way, but I believe we have to begin with throwing out the idea of “giving the consumer what he or she wants.” For one thing, I’m not really sure that the customer really knows what he or she wants, and the other point is that the customer wants a lot of different things under different circumstances. I believe that consumers generally like everything that is made well—big, powerful, tannic bruisers as well as lighter, more elegant reds; fresh and crisp Rieslings and rich, buttery Chards, depending on the mood, the occasion and the season, of course.
I had a most eye-opening experience a few years ago when I sat on a panel with the head of grape research for an exceptionally large unnamed winery in Modesto, CA., and we were ostensibly talking about promising grape varieties for the future. He was a nice enough guy, but how he talked about the grape research at this very large winery was a bit disturbing. It turns out that his group had identified certain kinds of flavors, aromas, textures and visual appearances of certain wines that their focus groups had associated with “quality,” and conversely, a number of flavors and aromas that were associated with lack of quality or in other words, “defect.” So, for example, bright fruity flavors like raspberry, cherry and licorice were all to the good. Good color intensity, weight and persistence on the palate, palpable but soft tannins bravo, indeed extra bravo. Grapes that produced wines that were exceptionally high in acid, lighter in color or had anything like bitter, green or herbaceous flavors were immediately disqualified.
So, as you can see, if pinot noir, cabernet franc or nebbiolo were to be considered de novo, they would likely not make it past the first cut. And yet, these are perhaps the genius red grape varieties—I might add “syrah” to that short list, and we all know how well that has worked out of late, especially grown where it has been grown. The point I’m trying to make is that any consideration of “quality” is enormously contextual. Italian grape varieties generally have a different sort of tannic structure than say French varieties, and stylistically, tend to be higher in acid; they work better with Italian food.
But I would not want to say that French grapes make better wine than Italian ones. I would also argue that if you are only interested in producing wines that are all sweetness and light, without shadow, if you will, you will end up producing something that is essentially banal. It is ultimately the play between all of the elements of a wine that create real complexity and interest. But perhaps more to the point, the congruity of fit between the grapes and where they are grown, as well as their ability to convey a mysterious additional element—the elusive, quasi-mystical notion of terroir, may well be the most important quality consideration of them all.
This brings me to an exceptionally important point in any consideration of wine quality, and that is the tension between the efforts of the winemaker to make a “successful” or at least consistent wine and his efforts to make a “truthful” wine. Put a slightly different way, what is the appropriate balance between the expression of a defined winemaking style and the elucidation of the qualities that somehow inhere in the grapes or wine itself, or more accurately, in the site from which the grapes derive?
The French, a somewhat dichotomous, Cartesian lot, make an important distinction between two kinds of wine: what they call vins d’effort or “wines of effort” and vins de terroir, or “wines of place.” You can think of this as a sort of dichotomy, but I prefer to think of it more as a continuum.
Wines of effort are ones where the winemaker has exerted a lot of control over the many variables in grape growing and winemaking and has made a very strong stylistic imprint on the wine—from the use of selected clones in the vineyard, to drip irrigation, cultured yeast and inoculated ML bacteria, enzymes, wood chips, micro-oxygenation and organoleptic tannins.
All of these interventions are done to create a certain consistency of style and to overcome the putative “deficits” of a particular vintage. These are the sorts of interventions—you can think of them as efforts to improve “quality”—that we in the New World are particularly good at. In a certain sense, this is really what we do best, and for that reason, our wines have great consistency from vintage to vintage and are arguably “friendlier” to the consumer. It’s not just the tannins that are friendlier, but the fact that the consumer has a reasonable expectation of what he or she is going to get every vintage.
But I would argue, that this kind of intervention, this great power to determine a wine’s stylistic fate, is, in a certain sense, a sort of Faustian compact. We have gained the world (and a lot of market share), but have lost our souls, or at the very least, quite often our soils. We’ve created a real glass ceiling as far as potential complexity; our wines are only as interesting and clever as we are, and unfortunately, I would submit, that is maybe not so very.
Let’s consider the other category: vins de terroir. These are the wines where the winemaker strives to somehow capture and reflect in the wine the inherent qualities of the site from which it derives, as well as the characteristics of the vintage, and by extension the great complexity and intelligence of Nature itself. They can offer an extraordinary added level of complexity to wine—literally a sort of extra-dimensionality in several respects.
The mineral aspect of these wines (let’s pretend for a moment that we understand what this really means) deriving from special, particularly expressive soil types—volcanic, limestone, schist, shale, granite, most markedly—can offer a distinctive aroma—whether the flintiness of limestone, the wet stoniness of basalt, or the “hydrocarbure” of schist—and gives the mid-palate a special kind of length or “sustain,” if you will. (This is a kind of structure given to the wine above and beyond the structure provided by the tannins and the other elements of the wine’s antioxidant profile.)
This opens the door to a much broader and ultimately crucial discussion about wine quality, to wit, the ability of a wine to resist oxidative challenge. In very simple terms, you open the bottle of wine, drink a glass or two, put the cork or screwcap back in or on and the wine will be good two days, three days, a week, sometimes even several weeks after it’s been open. I will just come right out and say it:
We, as an industry, have utterly failed in not identifying the essential wine mystery and the key feature of wine quality: Why do some wines live and some wines die? What strategies might we undertake to give our wines greater qi, greater life-force? (Hint: In my humble estimation, this all derives from the vineyard and the practices employed therein to make minerals available to the vine.)
One way I think about terroir is to use the terminology of communication theory—the signal/noise ratio. The winemaker is still working exceptionally hard, but with a different intention—to minimize any sort of jarring element, the noise of too much oak, the pruniness of over-ripe grapes, the vegetative aromas of underripe ones, and also the pleasant but potentially deformative aromas of certain cultured yeasts, and for that matter the deformation from spoilage organisms such as Brett. At the same time he or she is trying to boost the intensity and clarity of the signal, which is or at least should be the distinctiveness of the site, and I’ll talk about that in a moment.
The aesthetic of terroir can be somewhat subjective and every winemaker will interpret his terroirs a little differently. We must remember that the tools in the modern winemaker’s toolbox—cultured yeast, enzymes, the sugar used to chaptalize, the tartaric acid used to acidulate, the organoleptic tannins—are all in some sense “natural” products, or at least analogues of what one might find in the grape itself. But what is “polishing” for one person can be a sort of airbrushing or the application of excessive make-up, maquillage, for another. There is something creepy about faces that are too perfect; they don’t quite feel right or real.
While there is certainly a great degree of artifice in winemaking, you don’t want to see the seams. In a great vin de terroir, the winemaker has humbly painted himself discreetly into a corner; somehow it is the unique qualities of the site that take center-stage—the Musignyness of Musigny, for example, and add an aesthetic frisson to the experience.
So, what are the positive steps that a winemaker might take to accentuate the unique character of his site, its terroir? This is really the meat of the matter. Let’s begin in the vineyard: Lower yields certainly can be dramatically effective in improving quality (but not too crazy low, as that can create a deformation), closer vine spacing while holding yields static (there was a famous study in Chianti that demonstrated this or more accurately, a more favorable ratio of root mass to fruit volume).
This is probably the single most consistent determinant of grape quality, all things being equal. (A little parenthetical note here: Drip irrigation or worse, fertigation, as is our wont in this part of the world, generally works pretty much against the achievement of this critical ratio.)
Then, there is the practice of organic or biodynamic farming, which has been shown to significantly enhance mycorrhizal populations, providing for healthier plants and significantly better mineral uptake. (Ah, minerals…. As I’ve mentioned, this is perhaps the subject of another very, very long discussion.)
There is also just plain old good management practice, beginning with thoughtfulness of vineyard design and meticulousness of management.
Balanced, homeostatic and thrifty growth is what you are looking for: smaller leaves, smaller clusters, shorter internodes—you want to be a kind of viticultural Goldilocks in this regard, and get your vigor “just right.” Old vines (ideally, dry-farmed), if they live long enough, have figured this out by Nature’s innate wisdom. If you can get to a dry-farmed solution sooner than later, I would humbly suggest that allowing Nature to do the heavy lifting will give you a more perfect kind of balance than that which the cleverest agronomist might suggest. Uniformity of ripening, achieved by rigorous thinning, I think, is also a pretty important quality factor.
But, in the end, where you’ve chosen to plant a vineyard and what you’ve planted are the most important qualitative decisions you can make. In general, we’ve planted grapes in areas that are far too warm for the optimal expression of varieties, and we’ve farmed them in a way that doesn’t send the right hormonal signals to the vines, gentle suggestions that they might consider getting on with the business of ripening their fruit.
Dry-farmed vineyards carrying modest crops will ripen three to four weeks earlier than conventionally farmed vineyards, and this of course opens up all sorts of possibilities.
The major work to improve wine quality is, as I’ve suggested, done in the vineyard with the aim of avoiding heroic levels of intervention in the winery—acidulation, de-alcoholization, addition of yeast nutrients, the deployment of sundry microbial inocula, and so forth, but there are certainly things that can be done in the winery to improve quality, and the among them might be strategies to greatly reduce the use of sulfur dioxide.
Cold cellars, delayed malolactics can greatly reduce the total amount of sulfur dioxide required. But why stop there? It’s not inconceivable that with the right focus and intention one could eliminate the use of sulfur dioxide altogether in the winery and still produce wines that were not inordinately funky and remained fresh. Why not think about organisms that might perform a tertiary fermentation, depleting the wine of nutrients that would otherwise support microbial spoilage?
So, to close the loop on wines that express a sense of place: We, in California, generally don’t get there from here. For one, our soils are often not particularly interesting or appropriate for a vin de terroir—the old soils, for example are often heavily weathered and depleted of minerals, nor do we farm them in such a manner that might allow for the expression of terroir. Nor, fundamentally, as a young wine-drinking culture do we particularly esteem the earthy/haunting wines of place; these flavors are subtle, and subtle is not yet a quality that is currently greatly appreciated in the din of the wine agora, but this certainly can change.
And I have not even mentioned how utterly challenging it might be to identify the most appropriate sites in California for a terroir-expressive vineyard at least in a single lifetime, and the difficulty in working out the most congruent rootstocks and grapes to grow on those sites. In light of this disappointing news, why would one even choose to get out of bed in the morning?
Samuel Beckett said it best: “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” And it certainly does make sense for us here to go on. There are in fact extraordinary things that we can do in California to lend distinctiveness to our wines and to truly improve wine quality. There is a company that is working to help wine growers isolate and identify unique yeast strains that exist in their vineyards—those that are perhaps the optimal performers for their site. There are several exceptional soil amendments—one notably, biochar, or activated charcoal, that can really help in the uptake of minerals in the soil, conferring a greater expression of site.
The use of well made compost, especially with the addition of biodynamic preparations and rock dust I find to be among the single most useful things one can do to improve the health and vitality of a vineyard. Myself, I am particularly keen on the idea of growing grapes from seed (phylloxera-risk permitting) and thus creating a tremendous range of new and unique germplasm; this could provide the complexity of a gamut of unique genotypes in a given vineyard. This project will last longer than a single life-time, but ultimately could generate absolute individuality and uniqueness to a wine, as well as enormously accelerate the process of selection massale, undoubtedly the key to enhanced congruity of variety, clone and perhaps sub-clone to a given site.
In other words, how cool would it be to have uniquely bespoke varieties for your vineyard? In the end, the greatest advantage we have in the New World is our relative youth and the ability to see the wine world with fresh eyes.
There is also the other small fact that we are incredibly blessed that our industry is largely unimpeded by the vast tangle of rules and regulations that European wine growers must contend with.
I’d like to mention a fellow I know in the Valais in Switzerland, by the name of Hans-Peter Schmidt, who is doing a lot of work with biochar in vineyards there and in France. (He, by the way, reckons that biochar doesn’t really improve things much in the mineral-rich, glacially deposited soils of the Valais, but could be quite interesting in soils that are more depleted.) Strangely enough, he is producing wines without any SO2, and which also, counter-intuitively, don’t seem to readily oxidize, nor develop any significant levels of volatile acidity.
I’m not quite sure how he has come to this conclusion, but he believes that he has brought into his cellar a particular species of bacteria, an endophyte, through the roots of the vines, that has persisted through the course of fermentation and cellaring and is somehow keeping other competitive spoilage organisms in check—he’s been attempting some DNA profiling to try to get a handle on what it might be. I don’t know if his theory is utterly crackpot or not, but I’ve tasted his wine and it does seem to confound every received wisdom I’ve entertained about immutable winemaking truths.
So, in conclusion, I would suggest that the best course to improve wine quality in our part of the world is to remain open to the possibility of phenomena we can’t explain, and above all, remain humble to the fact that if we want to be particularly clever, we should attempt to leverage the greater intelligence of the natural world. And in this intensely competitive wine world that we inhabit, truly differentiated products arising from the originality of Nature’s intelligence, will ultimately confer the only real sustainable competitive advantage. Thank you.
This speech was delivered July 23rd to a Conference on Wine Quality, conducted at the Asilomar Conference Center, under the auspices of Diageo Wine Company.