If you pick up a bottle of your favourite whiskey once every year, it will almost certainly taste the same each time. Same for other spirits and beer. These drinks are made using consistent ingredients and recipes. This isn’t the case with wine. One of your favourite wines one year may not please you at all the next. You may love one Paso Robles Syrah and try another from a different vineyard down the road and hate it. Why?
The answer helps explain why there is so much complexity to the wine world and why a wine nerd like me can spend so much time obsessing on the topic. Whether you are a fellow wine nerd or simply curious, the reasons behind wine variability provide a great window into how wine is made and why that amazing bottle is so special.
There are countless variables to consider, but they fall into three main categories: nature, nurture (grower and winemaker), and the market.
In general, the best wines are a product of environmental stress. Like an athlete who strengthens his or her body through focused exercise (stress) followed by repair and replenishment, the best wines are a product of extremes that concentrate the flavours of the juice.
These natural conditions contribute to the dramatic variations you may find between bottles of the same type of wine made in the same year of bottles from the same producer in different years.
- Temperature — Some types of grapes thrive in extreme heat, others require hot days and cool nights, and still others require lots of sunshine and moderate temperatures. Subtle variations in temperature from one location to another in the same field will produce differences in the final product.
- Soil — Wine grapes will pull minerals and other nutrients from the soil that will end up affecting the final wine product. A particular plot of land may have been a seabed thousands or millions of years ago, with its soil made up of ground-up seashells that have a high mineral content. This mineral content will impart a distinct minerality to the grapes grown in that field. The same grape without that soil may be much more fruity and have a very different character.
- Precipitation — When and how much it rains radically affects a crop of wine grapes. Most of the best wine regions have dry seasons around the time of harvest. Dry grapes produce a more concentrated flavour and are less likely to mould and rot.
- Wind/Sun/Shade/etc. — Some of the best (and best-known) locations for making wine are so revered because of very specific features of a particular field’s location.
The best-known vineyards have microclimates that produce environments ideal for wine production. Subtle, unavoidable changes from year to year and place to place, however, make huge differences. The best vineyards benefit from a confluence of environmental factors that produce exceptional flavour on most years. But no two years are the same.
The hands of the winegrowers and winemakers can produce tremendous variability in a wine. As with a great chef, the best winemakers are only as good as their ingredients, but how they prepare and, in some cases, manipulate the product can also make a huge impact. Some of the factors affecting the final products are:
- Is the grower pruning the grapes? The thinning of grapes on the vine reduces the overall yield for a particular field, but the remaining grapes will receive more nutrients and accentuate flavour.
- When are the grapes harvested? The longer the grapes are left on the vine, the more sugar is present in the grape. The more sugar, the more alcohol. Too much and it will taste “hot.” Too little and it won’t possess enough flavour.
- How selective are the growers when preparing for the crush? Quality control is essential to producing a great wine. Different winegrowers have different standards for rejecting grapes. In some cases the grapes are left on the vine, which saves time and labour but also produces much more bitterness in the final product from the pulverized vines. This cuts costs but affects the final product.
- Which additives find their way into the juice? Which yeasts are used? Preservatives? Additives may not be a bad thing, but they will change the taste.
- How and for how long is the juice aged? Many wines are aged in expensive oak barrels. The amount of time spent in barrels can greatly affect the final product. More time in a barrel means more cost to the winemaker. Some less expensive wines are aged with oak chips in a large vat. Other wines never touch oak. None of these decisions are inherently good or bad, but they make a big difference in the final product.
- When was it bottled? How is it stored?
- How much does the winemaker blend or isolate specific grapes from specific plots of land? Careful blending of grapes from different locations and varietals can add or take away from the experience.
Good juice is essential for good wine. But how the juice gets harvested and turned into wine is almost as important. Since winemakers typically change less than the weather from year to year, this can produce some consistency in a variable product.
The final factor is you. Or us. Or wine media (me?). Try as we might to avoid it, we tend to inject bias into our wine tastes. That means the special bottle from the widely respected vineyard will taste better to you when you know what you’re drinking than it might if you are tasting it blind. The price of the wine can also influence your sense of quality. Another huge false signal of good wine: the label.
This doesn’t take away from all of the variables, but these expectations can place undue influence on your taste buds. Try to use the information you gain to isolate the things that matter to you and your enjoyment, and be aware of the biases and hype.
So how does understanding all of this help you? First, if you understand the factors that influence the flavour, you can start to seek out or lean away from specific types of wine or vintages. Second, if you want to collect wine or buy wine as an investment, this basic understanding of the factors that influence quality are essential learning before you spend a lot of money on a case to save or sell. Finally, knowing how wine is made enhances your enjoyment of a really good wine.
Understanding all (or some) of the things that must happen for a really tasty bottle of wine to make it to my glass adds to my enjoyment. If you’re like me, celebrate it!
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