Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Wine Wednesday - The Struggle

Grapes can be grown nearly anywhere in the world. There is hardly a civilization that exists, all the way back into antiquity, that did not have some form of wine making. Its an ancient practice, which makes sense because if you really think about it, its natural. Fermentation happens as grapes ripen and then decay. Really, all that has happened over the millennia is that we have studied and learned about what makes this process happen in the most tasteful and appealing way. We've learned how to make wine better.

If you look at a list or map of the wine regions in the world today, you will find that wine is grown nearly everywhere. Six of the seven continents in the world have wine producing regions with only Antarctica being the exception. Within the United States, wine is grown and made in all fifty states. Its such a versatile fruit, and able to be cultivated in many different environments. Did you know that grapes are the largest fruit crop on the planet? (A side note...mangoes are actually second - who would have thought that?)

One of the unique things about wine, and about which I am the most intrigued, is the fact that the best wines are produced from grapes that have to struggle. If a grape gets too many nutrients and too much water during the growing season will produce grapes that are not ideal for quality wine. In fact, there are a ton of factors that go into a quality wine. Summers that are not too hot and dry, or at least have cool evenings, but also a winter season that the vines do not have to worry about freezing. While rain and water are very needed for grapes to grow, it is preferred during the fallow seasons and not during the growing period, except from a water table that can provide a consistent, but not over-abundant, source of water to the plant. Soil needs to drain well, which is why they grow often in rocky soils on hillsides or in valleys. (The environment in which a grape grows is known as the terroir (the effects of geology, geography, and climate have on a grape; pronounced teh-rwahr).

What this really means is that wines need a struggle. They don't need an overabundance, but they need just enough to grow and develop into fruit that is concentrated enough to do well during the aging process. Vineyards are a year-round operation, with daily monitoring and care necessary for the grapes in each and every season. Vines need to be pruned, clusters prepped and counts left small enough that the energy of the plants is on a smaller, more concentrated amount of clusters. Often times grapes are even picked multiple times from the same vines to produce wines at different brix (sugar) levels, as well as also understanding how acid levels within the grapes effect aroma and flavor profiles.

There is a lot that goes into this ancient practice. We may go to a store and find a bottle of wine for $15 dollars that tastes great and wonder why there aren't more just like it, or why wine has not been standardized into the mass-quantity labels of lab-produced sodas or hard liquors. That is because there is so much variation, year to year, vineyard to vineyard, and climate to climate that changes the complexion of a wine.

For instance, Amanda and I recently were able to attend a fun wine club event at Page Springs Cellars here in Arizona. The event was called Build-a-Blend and it was oriented around the art (yes, ART) of blending wine. At this event they had six different varietals from the 2011 season that were available for blending to produce wine. One particular wine, a counoise from their Colibri vineyard, was discussed as it had been marked significantly by a wildfire that was in the area around that particular vineyard in the previous year. The smokiness in the wine was very prevalent. This coming from the smoke in the air around a vineyard that basically attached itself to the grapes through their skins and/or the leaves of the vines. We were discussing this with the assistant winemaker, who explained that for their purposes their probably would never mix this wine into a varietal for a release in more than 1% of the total volume. Personally, I tried blending one wine that used 5% of this grape, and it provided a nice smoky finish to the wine, but of which I could understand you would not want to drink glass after glass of the wine.

I love this about wine. I love how each and every year is filled with anticipation to see which characteristics stand out within the wine, and what that growing season has produced. The vines and grapes have struggled through the unique circumstances of that year, and for the winemakers you can tell they are a labor of love. When I go to a tasting room to try a flight of wine, this is what I enjoy hearing about the wine. What makes it unique. They each have a story, and the wines have character. A wine region gets known for certain characteristics, such as the Chateauneuf-du-Pape in the Rhone river valley in France.

Wine has to struggle. Every wine is unique, even when there is a varietal from the exact same vineyard in a different vintage. The fact that wine struggles to produce optimum quality says something to me about life, but also about what we value in exploring and understanding nature. Unlike chain restaurants or soda companies, we desire variety and story.

Every wine endures a struggle.

Every wine has a story.

This story, this struggle, is what makes wine great.

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