“Ninety percent of wine is made in the vineyard.”
“The winemaker’s role is to let the wine make itself.”
I am frequently reminded of these words from wine merchant and author Neil Rosenthal. As an agricultural product, the essence of a given wine is steeped in its origins. It stands to reason that the more suitable an environment is for a grapevine, the more likely it is that the grapes will produce a wine of great expression and high quality.
Rosenthal’s maxims are widely accepted in the wine world today. Whether the winemaker be from the prestigious and highly acclaimed vineyards of France or is a small producer in the foothills of the Napa Valley, most will state some form of these quotes when asked to describe the secret of their success.
These precepts imply that the quality of the finished product is largely out of the hands of the winemaker. Which it is–except when the hands of the winemaker are skilled, experienced hands able to reasonably deal with whatever obstacles nature may place before him or her.
Certainly an outstanding wine is the product of outstanding grapes, and outstanding grapes are the product of a combination of outstanding soil, climate, sun exposure and elevation.
But what of vineyards that don’t sport an elite pedigree? Are the resulting wines doomed to second class status? Can the skilled and experienced winemaker coax a fine wine from the matrix of factors influencing grapes? Is it possible to produce exceptional wine from a mediocre vintage?
What happens if a particular vintage suffers from adverse conditions in the vineyard? What happens if the same factors that produce a great wine one year are not present–or worse, are adversarial–in another vintage? What if the forces of nature produce frost in the springtime, thus diminishing the number of grape clusters; or torrential downpours in the spring and summer, thus diluting the concentration of grape juice; or hail in the summer, thus destroying ripening grape clusters; or an infestation of insects, thus threatening the very life of a grapevine; or a prolonged period of rain in late summer, thus causing mildew and fungus growth, threatening the vitality of the entire harvest?
In these circumstances, the 90 percent axiom would intimate a “lost vintage,” one that would either be abandoned or perhaps sold in bulk to be made into a lesser wine by a mass producer.
However, there are steps that can be taken in the winery if a lost vintage is harvested.
The mass producers resort to investments in the latest technology available for processing grapes with finite precision: exacting fermentation techniques, precise temperature controls and highly sophisticated monitoring instrumentation in the aging process.
The small producers don’t possess the same financial wherewithal to invest in technology. However, they typically have a legacy of family practices that may salvage a lost vintage. Organic vineyard practices provide vigor to grapevines to withstand adverse conditions better than the non-organic practices of mass producers. Hand selection of each cluster of grapes at harvest–crushing the best and discarding the lesser ones–assures the best harvest possible. Watching over each developing barrel, as one would a child, aids in shaping the wines to a winemaker’s exacting standards.
Whether employing the latest technology or the oldest family practices, masterful winemakers are able to salvage a lost vintage, producing acceptable wines.
Nature will continue to influence the production of wine. Whether through the quality of historic vineyard sites or the fickle finger of weather patterns, man must be ready to adapt and persevere. And man has indeed been successful in making wine in the winery as well as in the vineyard. Simply stroll through the wine racks in your local wine shop. Never have so many exceptional wines been consistently produced than in the last 10 years, come rain or shine.
Nick Antonaccio is a 35-year Pleasantville resident. For over 15 years he has conducted wine tastings and lectures. He also offers personalized wine tastings and wine travel services. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at email@example.com or on Twitter @sharingwine.