VINEYARD 101

A very wise woman called Fraulein Maria once said to me "lets start at the very beginning, a very good place to start".

When you read you begin with ABC... and when you talk about wine you start with the basics in the vineyard.

 

We often hear wine folks say that "good wine is made in the vineyard" or "you can't make good quality wine out of bad quality fruit."

And this is definitely not a old wives tales we need Mythbusters to ruin for us, they are both very accurate statements.

That being said the best way to truly understand where wine comes from is to delve into the basics of the lifecycle of the grapevine.

 

The humble grapevine is a perfect example of a perennial plant where it doesn't live for one growing season and die like an annual plant, a perennial regrows every spring - blooms over summer - then the foliage dies off in autumn - and the vine becomes dormant over winter, where the vineyard workers then prune the canes of the vine back to the cordons, leaving a couple of buds, which in spring will burst into life again and start the cycle once more.

Some viticulturists prune the shoots facing down to ensure that all growth upward which will reduce the potential crop size and is a technique used to reduce quantity to increase quality. Vines that produce a limited yield of grapes tend to produce more concentrated fruit.

 

Sounds simple? Well, to make a low quality wine you won't really want to do much after the bud burst stage as the amount of man-hours (or woman-hours!) put into vineyard work adds to the final shelf price. So the more you do by machine the easier it is to churn out a 2 buck chuck.

 

The higher the wine costs to buy, usually reflects the amount of work that goes into growing / making it.

A standard Central Otago Pinot Noir for instance has 4 maybe 5 times more work put into it then a standard Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc.

 

In Central Otago most of the work in the vineyard is done by hand; Over the summer months they will be mostly removing leaves from vines. This is an important job that that aids ripening by exposing the bunches to the sun and reduces disease by reducing the density of the canopy, allowing for air flow and quick drying following the morning dew.

 

As harvest time approaches, the task is to remove any secondary set fruit (bunches from flowers that blossomed after the original fruit set) and any unripe bunches are also dropped, this technique is called a 'green harvest' which will limit the yield, to ensure the fruit ripens evenly and the vine can achieve complex flavour concentration. Also, this stops any pickers, (who are usually new to vineyard work, and who will remove pretty much anything that looks like grapes from the vine) from picking any other than top quality fruit.

 

Everything you do in the vineyard and to each individual vine will effect its performance, even if only minutely; you are contributing to the development and condition, the health and the function and ultimately the quality of the grapes that will determine the resulting wine.

 

There is one romantic misconception about harvest… grape picking.

Many people imagine local French mademoiselles in floaty sun-dresses happily carrying their wicker baskets full of beautiful bunches through the vineyards…

To be honest, I would rather spend 8 hours in the cellar operating a crusher destemmer, or working with tanks, pumps and hoses, than 8 hours picking grapes.

It’s messy, buggy, sticky, hot, nasty work. There is no sugar coating this kind of work. It is hard, sometimes quite physically exhausting and surprisingly hazardous.

It is not difficult, but it promotes challenges if you are keen to tackle them.

Why pay lots of money for a wine?

I was reading the news yesterday and happened upon an article about a cheap wine winning best wine at a major wine competition. At first I thought good for them, and then I saw a comment on the article which brought up a good point.

Why pay lots of money for a wine when you can get an award-winning wine for $13 at the supermarket?

Wine awards:

Although highly coveted by vineyards, wineries and collectors, wine awards (those pretty little gold stickers added to bottles) should be taken with a very fine grain of salt.
There is no such thing as the “best wine”, every person’s sense of taste and smell are different.
The wine you think is gross is another drinker’s favourite drop.
Wine awards have exactly zero impact on the taste or enjoyment of a wine, and reviews, be it stars out of 5 or points out of 100, only mean anything to you as a drinker if you have the exact same taste preferences as the person scoring.

Also it is important to note that there are often restrictions on entry into these wine competitions.
Only vineyards who produce a high volumes can enter as they must be able to supply supermarkets, airlines, etc.

Think of it a bit like a competition for the best beer, a competition wouldn’t be truly reflective of beer quality as a whole if only DB and Lion were allowed to enter, similarly when looking at wine awards consider what was not entered into the competition.

Wine prices:

There are many variables when it comes to the price per bottle.
There are cost cutting measures you can take to make a wine that is cheap enough to sell into supermarkets, just as there are techniques that have been used for thousands of years to produce the best wine grapes.

Wine (in most cases) is a product that’s price directly reflects the amount of work and money that has gone into producing it and unlike other products, often the best products come from the producers you have never heard of.

Some things that affect bottle price and overall quality:

  • Crop thinning: When you cut away some of your fruit when it is very small so that the vines energy goes into what’s left and that creates a more concentrated grape juice. The trade off with this is that you can lose half of your fruit and therefore half of your money.
  • Oak barrels: Oak barrels must be imported from the opposite side of the globe, cost thousands each and only impart flavours for 3 years. That cost is in every bottle price.
    Some wineries cut costs by adding oak chips into stainless steel fermentation tanks and it is important to note that this practice put everyone off Chardonnay in the 90s.
  • By hand vs by machine: It is a lot cheaper to use machines for everything, but as advanced as these machines can be, they lack delicacy. Do you like the taste of bruised fruit? If not then hand picking is the way to go but people, unlike machines need a pay check.
  • Production size: Small wineries need to charge more for their product as they don’t sell very much of it, the benefit to small size is that the grapes are a lot more precious and treated with a lot more care. Larger wineries are able to sell more product and can therefore sell it cheaper, the problem with this is they must constantly cut costs in the vineyard and winery in order to keep their product at that cheap price point. It is the classic case of quantity vs quality.
  • Varietal: Some grapes, such as pinot noir, are very difficult to grow. They have very thin skins and so can’t be grown in conditions that are too hot. The places best suited for growing pinot noir (such as Central Otago) are susceptible to frosts, powdery mildew, mold, etc.
    This combined with the need for oak usage and delicate grape handling make it a costly varietal to produce.
    On the other hand, Sauvignon blanc (NZs biggest wine export) is super cheap to produce in Marlborough. If the fruit isn’t ripe, a few bags of Chelsea sugar will fix that and it can be machine harvested, made in reusable stainless steel tanks and shipped out two months after it is picked.
  • Vintage: Was it good weather for growing a specific varietal in a specific region? Slightly more rain than usual, sun too hot, frosts at 2am. There is a reason wine bottles have the date on the label and good vintages need to reimburse wine growers for the bad ones.

There are many other things which affect the price of a wine be it pocket change quaffer or a bank busting special occasion wine, and there is no rule that says you should enjoy one more than the other; a bottle of the worst wine could be the best thing ever if the occasion is right.

In summary:

Don’t pay too much attention to wine awards or critics, instead go out there and taste the wines for yourself, experiment with things you don’t normally drink and increase the repertoire of the things you drink often.

Do pay a little more for your wine, you get a product with more love and care than a cheap wine and the small producers who make it need every cent they can get in order to make more delicious vino.