Friday, March 30, 2007

About Winemakers and Dirt

 I would guess (and hope) that by now it’s somewhat obvious I greatly admire and respect winemakers -- their intelligence, their dedication, and their endurance in the face of what can be a host of daunting challenges. Producing a fine bottle of wine is a complex tasks that calls for the mastery of a wide range of skills and knowledge, from agronomy and chemistry, to what might be called the “arts” of tasting, smelling, and blending.

A good bottle of wine is also the result of an act of imagination, or creative interpretation. Thus it is at once a work of skill, inspiration, and wonder. The winemaker begins with a raw material (grapes), as a sculpture does with stone or clay. He or she first envisions a result, sees the wine within the grape as some sculptures claim to see a figure within a block of marble, and then sets about releasing it from the confines of its skin.

The act of crafting a wine draws upon the three key classes of human understanding -- that based on the rational or scientific, that based on years of experience or tradition, and that which is intuitive or spiritual. In the end, and in its own way, it’s an act of transubstantiation. There was a time when all this was surrounded by the deeply mysterious, and filled us with wonder. Wine was the libation of the gods. There remain today those who still think it is a sacred undertaking.

One such group is the Vigneron independant, an association of small French winemakers dedicated to using tried-and-true methods in the production of their wines. Moreover, they are fully responsible for both growing the grapes and making the wine. They are thus farmers as well as winemakers; or, in fancier terms, both viticulturists and viniculturists. In most every case they are family-run operations, with everyone, from the mouse-catching cat to the rabbit-chasing dog, pitching in to do his or her part. They all take great pride in what they do.

Although they favor traditional methods, they are not by any means backwards or rustic. Many are young and graduates from prestigious universities with degrees in oenology or agrarian science. Others are men and women whose families have been making wine for generations and whose sense of how to do so was absorbed along with their mother’s milk. What they share is a belief that one should use the least intrusive methods available. They’re therefore committed to interjecting themselves as little as possible into the process, a somewhat paradoxical stance for a winemaker to take. It also makes the wine making more difficult and challenging.

At the very heart of their approach is the concept, or to them inviolate reality, of terroir, a term that is next to impossible to translate but which has been taken up by other winemakers around the world. At its most basic in simply means “dirt” or “soil,” but in its fuller sense it includes every conceivable geological, agricultural, and environmental factor that gives a piece of land its character and uniqueness. These factors impart to grapes grown on a given plot of land a distinctiveness, a specialness, that must be preserved in, and expressed by, the wine made from them.

Thus everything originates with the land. The very kind of grapes you plant is determined by the nature of the land: its chemical composition (limestone, shale, granite, chalk, or clay); its texture (gravelly, sandy, or dense); its altitude, its orientation to the sun, exposure to the elements, and capacity to retain or drain water. That it might be on the side of a steep hill and almost impossible to work is not a consideration; if land will grow good grapes, it will be cultivated at whatever cost of back-breaking labor.

I have been with winemakers who have actually had me taste their dirt, and the similarity between it and their wine is subtle but nonetheless remarkable. And this congruence, this harmony, constitutes the whole of their belief and commitment: Wine should taste of the land from which it comes.

But achieving this is no easy task and, as I said above, it requires that the winemaker find ways to nurture the process but not interfere with with the grapes natural expression of the terroir through themselves. This takes a great deal of knowledge, experience, patience, and restraint. It also requires that little element of luck without which no farmer or winemaker could survive. Knowing the soil, even having tasted it, the winemaker knows the end towards which he or she is aiming, and their artistry lies in gently guiding things along to their natural conclusion. As with the sculptor, they sense the figure within the marble, the wine within the grape, and all they have to do is help it emerge.

The result is that wines made by such winemakers are not cookie-cutter wines. They are individual and full of character. While you may like or dislike them, you will be left with no doubt you have tasted something special, a unique expression of grape and land.

So, if you’d like to sample some interesting wines made by dedicated craftsmen, look for the symbol of the winemaker toting a barrel on his shoulder, the message being that the full weight of responsibility for the wine inside that barrel rests on his or her back. The symbol (pictured above) is imprinted on the capsule, that metal or plastic covering around the top and neck of the bottle.

As I indicated, other winemakers around the world have embraced the concept of terroir. When it is formalized, as has been done in Europe, the result is designated growing areas, or place names, that can appear on labels as an indication of geographic pedigree, style, and quality. In most cases these world-wide efforts are patterned after the French AOC system (Appellation d’origine controlee).

In the United States there are now a number of appellations of origin based on what are designated American Viticultural Areas, or AVA’s. The largest AVA, at 26,000 square miles, is the Ohio River Valley, while the best known are perhaps those in California, like the Napa Valley or Russian River AVA’s. The smallest AVA, at about a half- mile square, is Cole Ranch in Mendocino County.

Use of these AVA place names on a wine label are controlled by strict regulation. They do not guarantee quality, but rather place of origin. But the hope is that over time consumers will come to recognize the implications of these AVA’s in the same way informed wine drinkers know what the terms Burgundy, Bordeaux, Chianti, or Rioja imply. They will know that what they are getting is an expression of a special bit of soil, of the earth itself, speaking to them by means of grapes and the hard work and dedication of the men and women who oversee their transformation.

1 comment:

susan said...

Hey John -

I can't believe you tasted dirt! But, it makes sense, given all that you said. My parents came down Friday for dinner, and we had a bottle of the Nobilo Sauvignon Blanc. They really liked it!