Wine is Not Made in the Vineyard

By Rebecca Gibb | Posted Saturday, 22-Mar-2014
 This semester, the compulsory paper for all oenology students is “Winemaking Patter”. In order to graduate, all students must learn phrases that they will regale to winery visitors in the future.

The syllabus will cover phrases such as “overdelivering on quality" or "an obsessive commitment to quality", “hang time” and the current must-have expression: “Wine is made in the vineyard.”

Of course, the latter phrase should not be taken literally. Have you not learned anything in the last three years of study? We all need that reverse osmosis machine in a bad vintage – sorry, a “winemaker’s vintage.”

Admittedly this module in a winemaking degree is fictitious but one too many utterances of  “wine is made in the vineyard” from the owner of a Bordeaux classified growth inspired this column.

It seems that almost every classified growth in Bordeaux is currently pouring millions upon millions of dollars into new wineries. Some of Bordeaux’s most expensive winery projects in recent years include the 20m euros ($26.5m) renovation at Château Montrose. Pichon-Longueville Comtesse de Lalande spent 16m euros ($21.2m), Pavie invested 14m euros ($18.6m), and Mouton Rothschild has dropped 13m euros ($17.3m) on its cellars. Ask them where their wine is made and I would wager that their response would be: "in the vineyard."

It's the same in many of the world's top wine regions: producers are buying optical sorters and amphorae and ordering custom-toasted wine barrels. But their wine "is made in the vineyard".

The phrase is not meant literally but implies that you can’t make great wine if the raw material isn’t up to scratch. This is certainly true and in the past two decades wineries have been putting a huge amount of effort into their vineyards in a bid to improve their fruit quality, trialling new methods from green harvesting to fancy irrigation systems.

The efforts have been worthwhile: wine drinkers have never had it so good, as Mike Steinberger pointed out in his last column. The vineyard is key to making great grapes and without great fruit, great wine cannot be made. However, even great grapes still have to be made into great wine – in the winery! And there is plenty of room for error from the grapes reaching the reception area to the bottling line. 

Yet winemakers from all four corners of the globe are telling us wine is made in the vineyard, and repeating the same lines over and over again.[Alexandre Thienpont's a keen cyclist and glider; meet Jordan's donkey Maverick]
© Philippe Roy/Rebecca Gibb | Alexandre Thienpont's a keen cyclist and glider; meet Jordan's donkey MaverickSo, here's an idea: instead of telling us the same thing that the guy from Bordeaux said and spouting the same line as the lady from Napa, or putting us to sleep with hectares, varietal mix and rootstocks, tell us your story – unless you spot trains or collect stamps. In that case, stick to the rootstocks.

Every story is unique: the story of the people, their family and their exploits makes a winery stand apart from the crowd – not forgetting the wine.

For example, I have no idea how many acres of Cabernet Sauvignon are planted at Chilean winery Montes. But I do remember Aurelio Montes Jr. likes to jump out of planes.

I have forgotten the proportion of new oak in Vieux Château Certan's wines. But I can tell you that owner Alexandre Thienpont cycled from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean for his 50th birthday "treat” and his grandfather was also a fan of pedal power, cycling from Belgium to Pomerol just to check on his vines during German occupation.

Or how about the tale of Pichon Baron’s harvest team? In 1987, a circus crew arrived with their caravans and animals in tow, including a llama, to pick the grapes. Now that's worth remembering.

And while I'm on a storytelling roll, Jordan Winery in Sonoma adopted two donkeys last year: Maverick and Goose. The Top Gun-inspired names are a nod to owner John Jordan's piloting skills.

Without these stories, we're swimming in a vat of information that is often read and quickly forgotten. Swedish researchers have found that our ‘working memory’ has become overloaded with all the information we are receiving from the Internet on a daily basis and that our short-term memory is deteriorating, as a result of the wealth of information at our fingertips. However, if something entertained or inspired you, it’s more likely that you’ll retain it. It’s unlikely your rootstock selection will be on the retention list.

Producers are not the only ones who must remember to tell their story and tell it well. The wine media also has an important role to play: journalists should draw out unique and interesting personal stories from producers and write compelling copy. However, writers that pack an article with more facts than you can shake a stick at are courting with information overload. I’d rather have a good read – an article that you can actually finish without needing a stiff drink.

Whether you are a producer, a retailer or a writer, we should all be telling more of these compelling stories because "making wine in the vineyard" is not original and literally, it isn't true.
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